Cheltenham Countdown: Who should Barry Geraghty opt for in the Champion Hurdle?

As the build up to Cheltenham continues, Darren Norris and Tommy Lyons debate who Barry Geraghty should ride going into the Champion Hurdle. 
Cheltenham Countdown: Who should Barry Geraghty opt for in the Champion Hurdle?

Buveur D’Air’s superior jumping makes him the logical selection

AP McCoy faced a couple of dilemmas in the run-up to the 2014 Cheltenham Festival. They were the sort of ‘problems’ top jockeys crave but were still the sort of decisions that could fry your brain. As the retained jockey to JP McManus, McCoy had the choice of My Tent Or Yours or Jezki in the Champion Hurdle. He chose My Tent Or Yours, a decision to was left to rue as Jezki, ridden instead by Barry Geraghty, prevailed by a neck. Two days later, history repeated itself when McCoy opted for At Fishers Cross ahead of More Of That in the Stayers’ Hurdle. McCoy had to settle for third as Geraghty steered More Of That to victory.

Three years on, it is Geraghty who faces the selection posers. In truth, after Jezki’s defeat at Gowran Park last weekend, Geraghty’s Stayers’ Hurdle call now doesn’t look too difficult. He will now surely opt for Unowhatimeanharry.

His Champion Hurdle call, however, is an extremely difficult one. The market is headed by Buveur D’Air (above) and Yanworth. As of yesterday, 10/3 was the top price on offer for Buveur D’Air while 4/1 was the best you could get for Yanworth. There’s little, bookmakers agree, between the duo.

Given what proved the well-placed doubts about the wellbeing of Faugheen and Annie Power, I backed Yanworth at 10/1 for the Champion Hurdle in advance of the Christmas Hurdle on St Stephen’s Day. He won that day but his jumping was way below the standard required to win a Champion Hurdle, even a Champion Hurdle as moderate as this year’s renewal. He was halved in price for the Champion Hurdle after that Kempton success but I found myself fearing for my investment.

He returned to action at Wincanton on Saturday where he sported cheekpieces for the first time. The hope was they might sharpen up his jumping but, to these eyes, they had the sort of impact a bag of Skittles would have on a hangover. He again made several niggly errors and had to work extremely hard for a deeply unimpressive victory.

In his defence, he never looked like falling and he certainly possesses a willing attitude and a will to win. He doesn’t lack pace either, a key asset given his tendency to lose momentum at most hurdles.

The question Geraghty must ask himself is this: Can a horse who jumps as poorly as Yanworth win a Champion Hurdle? There’s no margin for error in a race run so frantically and, on the evidence of the season, there’s little prospect of Yanworth not making a mistake at a couple of the eight obstacles.

For that reason Buveur D’Air looks the safer, wiser option. Admittedly, his profile is not that of standard Champion Hurdle contender.

Like Yanworth, he’s unbeaten this season but two of those three triumphs have come over fences. He wasn’t entirely convincing over the larger obstacles and, given the openness of the Champion Hurdle this year, the decision was taken to revert to hurdling.

Buveur D’Air made his hurdling return at Sandown earlier this month and, while the bare form of a length-and-a-half success over Rayvin Black doesn’t scream superstar, he travelled with the ease and grace of a class horse and won with any amount in hand. But what impressed most, bar the first obstacle, was the slickness of his jumping as he got from A to B with a minimum of fuss. It was a hugely encouraging effort.

In truth, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Buveur D’Air may have had to settle for third in last year’s Supreme but that now looks a vintage renewal. Altior, the winner that day, looks a monster while runner-up Min, a festival absentee this year, is a seriously good horse too. There was no shame in losing to them.

Buveur D’Air ended last season by winning a Grade One at Aintree and while beating 40/1 outsider by a neck didn’t look breathtaking form at the time, it looks pretty decent now.

That 40/1 outsider was Petit Mouchoir, a horse who won the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown at Christmas and the Irish Champion Hurdle at the same venue last month.

Petit Mouchoir is now the leading Irish hope at 5/1 for the Champion Hurdle but the suspicion is that, like 2014, the finish will be fought out by two McManus-owned horses.

Geraghty just needs to pick the right one. Buveur D’Air is the superior jumper and that should make him Geraghty’s choice.

Yanworth has plenty going for him and is clearly the percentage bet

Barry Geraghty is in the enviable position of having the choice between Buveur D’Air, Yanworth and a few far-less-likely alternatives carrying the McManus silks, for the Champion Hurdle, but there’s only one way he should go: Yanworth.

Admittedly, I haven’t been entirely convinced by Yanworth this season and, in a high-quality renewal of the race, his jumping would be a huge concern. But, in keeping with the meeting as a whole, this year’s race has taken knock after knock, and the depleted field of possible runners looks far less daunting than it did prior to some high-profile horses falling by the wayside.

Yanworth’s own participation came under question when he suffered a minor setback and when the cat was put amongst the pigeons with the same owner’s decision to revert Buveur D’Air’s attention to hurdling, despite a positive start to his chasing career.

But Yanworth, whose jumping was far from fluent when he won the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, proved his well-being with a fine display in the Grade 2 Kingwell Hurdle last Saturday at Wincanton. Sure, the pace was somewhat slower on the latter occasion than at Kempton, and certainly not as frenetic as it will be in the Champion Hurdle, but his display of jumping was more encouraging, and his attitude as good as ever.

He seems certain to improve from that outing, before which he had a hold-up, and can only benefit from the stronger pace in the Champion Hurdle. Add in the stiffer finish, over the two-mile trip, and, as long as his jumping holds up, it will take a pretty smart effort to deny him on the punishing climb to the line.

His sole defeat to date over hurdles came in last season’s Neptune Novice Hurdle, in which he was runner-up to Yorkhill, but he lost little in defeat there and looks better over this shorter trip, particularly when there is a strong pace.

One of the greatest certainties of the Cheltenham Festival is good-to-soft ground on the opening day and that is a large part of the reason why Geraghty must choose him ahead of Buveur D’Air.

Unquestionably, the latter is quite a prospect, and, to date, his only defeat to date over hurdles also came at last season’s Cheltenham Festival. But, after he finished an honourable but well-beaten third behind stablemate Altior in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, his trainer, Nicky Henderson, was quick to sound his delight at the performance as, he pointed out, this fellow would much prefer cut in the ground.

Conditions were soft when he touched off Petit Mouchoir at the Aintree festival, and in all three of his outings this term, two of which were over fences.

His recent return to hurdling yielded the cheekiest of successes when, in receipt of 4lbs from Rayvin Black, he won without having to be asked a serious question. However, the runner-up and third-placed Irving did little for the form when both beaten more than 30 lengths in fifth and sixth place respectively behind Yanworth at Wincanton.

And that defeat of Rayvin Black is his sole attempt outside of novice company, whereas Yanworth has gained invaluable experience in all three outings this season. While clearly classy and full of potential, that leaves Buveur D’Air with a steep learning curve to climb, and the proven ability of Yanworth, himself unexposed, will surely prove unassailable unless conditions are entirely in his favour.

Fortunately for Geraghty, the decision does not have to make his until much closer to the day, by which time we should have confirmation that the ground will be marginally on the soft side of good. With that should come confirmation of his decision to choose the Alan King-trained gelding.

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