For the third consecutive year, the fifth time in the last 10 runnings, and a record ninth time in total, the familiar green and gold colours of JP McManus were carried to victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle. This, however, was surely the most surprising, won in tremendous fashion by Espoir D’Allen.
A maiden Festival success for trainer Gavin Cromwell and just a second for leading jockey Mark Walsh, the winner belied his tender age of five to come out on top in a race billed as a battle of the big three: Buveur D’Air, Apple’s Jade, and Laurina. There were crucial inflection points aplenty, right from the outset. Last year’s runner-up, Melon, jumped off in company with Apple’s Jade, who made a mistake at the second hurdle and was clearly lacking her usual zest thereafter.
The complexion took an even greater turn at the next hurdle, where dual champion Buveur D’Air got in too close and tumbled to the ground, and in the process, gave the following Sharjah no chance to avoid her. She all but fell and gave her rider, Patrick Mullins, no chance to keep the partnership intact. All the while, Apple’s Jade, who was sent off a well-backed favourite, struggled to keeps tabs on leader Melon, but the heavily-punted Laurina sat comfortably in third place, before moving up into the chase position after the next hurdle.
Given the day’s earlier results, a Mullins one-two seemed almost inevitable. However, 16-1 chance Espoir D’Allen also moved nicely in behind and, so well was he travelling, his rider chose the daring route between the two Mullins runners when challenging on the downhill run. Asked to assert on the turn for home, he faced the final climb with a clear advantage and, whereas the chasers were floundering in the testing ground, he was full of running and readily skipped clear up the hill to win by 15 lengths from 20-1 chance Melon and 80-1 chance Silver Streak.
“I am lost for words,” admitted Cromwell, who continues to work as a farrier, as well as looking after his string of 50 horses. “Espoir D’Allen is French-bred and they do mature earlier,” he added, alluding to the fact the winner is just the first five-year-old since Katchit, in 2008, to win the race, and just the second since See You Then in 1985.
“He has been winning Grade 3s this season, so to go and do that is fantastic. He wouldn’t stand out in the string on his work, but he’s a gorgeous-looking horse. I have three horses for J P McManus and about 50 in total, but not many graded horses. Charlie Swan found the horse in France and he came to me after winning a juvenile bumper over there.
“I had a call from J P’s team to say I had a horse coming to me in a couple of weeks, and it was this one. J P has been very good to me and sent me Jer’s Girl, who won a couple of Grade 1 races; it’s great to be able to repay him.”
Winning rider Mark Walsh has long been recognised as one of the leading talents in Ireland, but this was just his second win at the meeting, adding to last year’s success aboard the Willie Mullins-trained Bleu Berry in the Coral Cup.
“Everything went well for me,” said Walsh. “When Buveur D’Air fell at the third hurdle, I luckily avoided the fall and got a lovely run through the whole way. For a five-year-old to do that in what we thought was one of the best Champion Hurdles run in the past few years, he is a right little horse. It is unbelievable. He is the first five-year-old since Katchit to win the race and hopefully there will be a few more Champion Hurdles in him yet.
“He’s very uncomplicated and we were delighted when we saw the rain come this morning, as he travels a lot better in this slower ground. Gavin and I spoke before the race and the plan was to ride him for a place. And we got a place — it was first place. I was in front soon enough and I heard a horse coming, but only realised after the last that it was a loose horse.
“This win will take a while to sink in. It’s back to work now, but it was brilliant to land this event.”
Winning this race is a familiar feeling for owner J P McManus, who is the leading owner in the race’s history, having previously been successful with Istabraq (1998, 1999 and 2000), Binocular (2010), Jezki (2014) and Buveur D’Air (2017 and 2018). McManus was quick to point out the significance to Cromwell and Walsh:
“It’s great to win another Champion Hurdle, and I am thrilled for Gavin and Mark, it’s a big moment for them. It was disappointing to see Buveur D’Air fall, but that was his own making. It is of course still very nice to win the race with Espoir D’Allen. Any time you win the Champion Hurdle you have to enjoy it.”