At the time of writing, the Cheltenham Festival is less than three weeks away and the feature race on Day One, the Champion Hurdle, seems increasing likely to involve a set-to between, or among, leading trainers Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson and Gordon Elliott.
Of course, Henderson is responsible for the defending champion, and favourite, Buveir D’Air, who seeks to emulate Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq by winning the race three years in a row. Now an 8-year-old, Buveur D’Air may have lost his air of invincibility when turned over, albeit narrowly, by his stable companion Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day, but still looks a worthy favourite at around the 2/1 mark. With a Timeform Annual Rating of ‘just’ 167, he may not be quite as good as See You Then, also trained by Henderson, but that may not stop him winning.
Next best, at least in the antepost market, is Apple’s Jade, trained by Gordon Elliott, at 9/4. The mare, who receives a 7lb allowance from Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle, was beaten at odds of 1/2 in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle last year, but is 4-4 this term and did not appear to be inconvenienced by dropping back to the minimum trip in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in early February.
Willie Mullins, who last won the Champion Hurdle with Annie Power in 2016, may saddle another top-class mare, Laurina, who is unbeaten in six starts – five of them at odds-on – since joining the Co. Carlow trainer from Guillaume Macaire in France two seasons ago. She has yet to be seriously challenged, including in the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last year and, while her one Grade One win, at Fairyhouse last April, was effectively a “shoe-in”, it’s difficult to know just how good she is. The fact that she’s third favourite for the Champion Hurdle is a fair indication, though, and anyone who ignores her does so at their peril.
Looking beyond the leading trio, anyone looking for an out-and-out ‘punt’ in the Champion Hurdle could do worse than to consider Evan Williams’ 6-year-old Silver Streak, who can be backed at 50/1 antepost. The Dark Angel gelding has yet to race, never mind win, at Grade One level, but needs an end-to-end gallop – which he’ll almost certainly get in the Champion Hurdle – to be seen at his best. He could, yet, surprise one or two of his apparently more illustrious rivals.