Apple’s Jade looks all set to foil D’Air’s hat-trick bid

The Unibet Champion Hurdle, the headline act on the opening day of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, pits a hat-trick-seeking champion against a superstar mare as well as a mare with superstar potential

Apple’s Jade looks all set to foil D’Air’s hat-trick bid

The Unibet Champion Hurdle, the headline act on the opening day of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, pits a hat-trick-seeking champion against a superstar mare as well as a mare with superstar potential.

Buveur D’Air against Apple’s Jade with the unknown quantity that is Laurina thrown into the mix – Champion Hurdles do not come more fascinating.

Victory today will see Buveur D’Air become the first horse since the mighty Istabraq and only the sixth in history to win this race three times. Nicky Henderson’s charge is a classy animal who perhaps has not yet had the recognition his exploits deserve. That will surely change if he obliges this afternoon but this promises to be his toughest test yet.

In Apple’s Jade, Buveur D’Air faces a Grade One-winning machine in the form of her life. Four times she has run this season and on each occasion she has been nothing short of spectacular.

An 11-length Grade Two win at Navan over two and a half miles was followed by a 20-length victory in the Grade One Hatton’s Grace over the same trip. Stepped up to three miles at Leopardstown over Christmas, she cruised to be a 26-length before she proved her versatility – and booked her ticket for this race – by dropping back to two miles to win the Irish Champion Hurdle, her 10th top-level success, at the Dublin Racing Festival by 16 lengths last month.

As for Laurina, even those closest to her don’t know how good she is or could be. Yet to be beaten and yet to be tested in six starts for Willie Mullins, she could be top-class but she’ll have to be to get the better of opposition of the calibre of Buveur D’Air and Apple’s Jade.

Those two set an exacting standard and while the holder won’t surrender his crown without a fight, Buveur D’Air will struggle to beat Apple’s Jade giving her 7lbs.

If Gordon Elliott’s bold front-runner rocks up in the same imperious form she has shown throughout this season, she won’t be caught.

A weight allowance could also prove decisive vital in the Festival curtain-raiser, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, where the four-year-old Fakir D’Oudairies can make full use of the 8lbs he gets from his older rivals.

No four-year-old has won this race since future Champion Hurdle hero Hors La Loi landed the spoils in 1999 but only 13 have tried since and most of them simply weren’t good enough.

Is Fakir D’Oudairies good enough? He certainly looked a little special when destroying the opposition in a Grade Two at today’s venue on Festival Trials day in January. A 13-length margin of victory at the line was in no way flattering as he built on the promise shown when winning his maiden hurdle at Cork on his first start for Joseph O’Brien.

He may be youngest horse in the field but he won’t lack for experience having run five times in France before moving to Ireland and the generous age allowance may allow him to get the better of Betfair Hurdle winner Al Dancer, who looks sure to put up a bold bid for Nigel Twiston-Davies.

After the death of her husband Richard last year, emotions will run high if the Kayley Woollacott-trained Lalor wins the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy. If he turns up in the same form as he showed when scoring over course and distance in November he should put up a bold display. However, he was turned over at Sandown on soft ground on his only start since so the forecast rain overnight has to be a worry.

That being the case, preference instead is for the rapidly progressive Glen Forsa. Mick Channon’s charge has been a revelation since switched to fences, taking his record to a perfect three from three when thrashing Kalashnikov by 19 lengths in a Sandown Grade Two last month. His electric jumping is huge asset and he could take some pegging back.

Willie Mullins has dominated the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle since its inception in 2008 and his Benie Des Dieux looks unopposable in the day’s final Grade One.

She hasn’t been seen a racecourse since winning this race last year but that never bothered six-time winner Quevega and the expectation is it is won’t stop Benie Des Dieux.

The Grade Two National Hunt Chase rounds off today’s action and, on the assumption he’ll stay the four-mile trip, OK Corral gets the verdict to score for Nicky Henderson, Derek O’Connor, and JP McManus.

As ever, the handicaps look fiendishly challenging but leading Grand National fancy Vintage Clouds looks a big each-way price at 25-1 in the Ultima, a race he finished third in last year. He was pulled up in the Welsh National when last seen but has since undergone wind surgery and it would be no great surprise if he bounced back today.

The Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase also looks a minefield but Joseph O’Brien’s Tower Bridge was a Grade One winner at last year’s Dublin Racing Festival before finishing a credible fifth in the Albert Bartlett. Sporting cheekpieces for the first time today, he looks an intriguing contender.

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