Cheltenham countdown: Is Buveur D’Air the right Champion Hurdle favourite?

Our writes debate Buveur D’Air’s merits as the market leader...

YES: The McManus-owned star is trained by right man and has class to prevail, writes Darren Norris

The Champion Hurdle market is in a state of flux following the bombshell news on Monday that Faugheen, the brilliant winner of the 2015 renewal, will miss out on the Cheltenham Festival for the second year in a row.

In one sense, it really shouldn’t have been that big a surprise.

Injury issues have meant Faugheen hasn’t seen a racecourse since his imperious victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle in January of last year.

Several dates have been pencilled in for his return this season but, for one reason or another, he was unable to make any of them.

It says everything about his reputation that he was still ante-post favourite for this year’s renewal before Monday’s announcement.

For Willie Mullins, the news Faugheen and his stablemate, Arkle hopeful Min, will miss the festival is the latest setback to what is proving an exceptionally challenging season.

For racing fans, the absence of one of the sport’s biggest stars will also be keenly felt. However, Cheltenham is bigger than any one horse and the revised Champion Hurdle market is an intriguing one with as many as five horses vying for favourtism.

Buveur D’Air is the current favourite, a remarkable state of affairs given that until eight days ago there was no indication he’d be running in this race. Chasing was now his game, the JLT Novices’ Chase his festival aim. And he’d made a pretty promising start, winning both his races over fences.

However, after Annie Power was ruled out and given the doubts about Faugheen’s well-being, the decision was taken by connections to revert to hurdling. It looked a pretty decent call at the time. Given Monday’s developments, it may prove an inspired one.

Buveur D’Air made his hurdling return at Sandown on Saturday and though the bare form of a length-and-a-half victory over the limited Rayvin Black amounts to little, the ease with which he cruised through the race simply oozed class.

With the exception of the opening obstacle, the JP McManus-owned six-year-old jumped beautifully and travelled with the slickness and authority of a top-class horse. It was an armchair ride for Barry Geraghty.

Buveur D’Air’s form over hurdles last season also makes pleasant reading. He won his first two races last season in impressive style before finishing third behind Altior and Min in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the festival on ground that was a little quick for him.

Circumstances conspired against him that day but, while he wouldn’t have beaten Altior, he’d have been a good second to a pretty exceptional rival had he got a clearer run.

He ended last season by winning a Grade One at Aintree on soft ground. At the time, beating 40/1 outsider Petit Mouchoir by a neck didn’t look exceptional form.

Now the picture looks very different. Petit Mouchoir would have won the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in November had he not fallen but has made amends since, winning the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown at Christmas and the Irish Champion Hurdle at the same venue last month.

In Faugheen’s absence, Petit Mouchoir is now the main Irish hope for the Champion Hurdle unless connections opt to supplement Yorkhill. There’s no doubt Petit Mouchoir has improved but, equally, Buveur D’Air looks a stronger, more mature animal this year. He should be able to confirm the Aintree form with that rival.

Another factor in Buveur D’Air’s favour is his trainer.

While Willie Mullins has dominated the Champion Hurdle in recent years, Nicky Henderson’s record in the day one feature is unparalleled.

He trained the fragile See You Then to three successive victories between 1985 and 87, the diminutive Punjabi to success in the 2009 before Binocular provided his most recent triumph in 2010. In short: Henderson knows what it takes to win this race. In Buveur D’Air, he has a horse with the raw ability to do the business again.

The one niggling concern is that he might be a little more ground dependent than his market rivals. For that reason, it makes sense to wait until the day before investing.

If all the remaining big-players make it — and recent events have once again illustrated that’s by no means certain — Buveur D’Air should still be a reasonable price. As things stand, he is certainly the right favourite.

NO: His position at top of the market has been inherited rather than earned, writes Tommy Lyons

Oh, what a week to highlight the perils of ante-post betting. Willie Mullins must feel the collective breath of a mass of exasperated punters on the back of his neck each time he gives the latest update on his would-be Cheltenham contenders.

But it’s not just the Closutton team which is sending the long-odds markets into turmoil. The recent decision to switch the Nicky Henderson-trained Buveur D’Air back to hurdling has had a huge impact on the Champion Hurdle market.

He has hardly put a foot wrong in two outing over fences, and those who backed this horse for the JLT are entitled to feel shocked and more than a little disappointed. But, that’s the nature of the ante-post beast.

Before he jumped a flight in Saturday’s Contenders’ Hurdle, he was vying for second-favouritism for the Cheltenham race and, after justifying odds of 1-4, was cut as short as 3-1 to win the Champion. But there’s a sense of this being an inherited position at the top of the market rather than one which has been earned.

In last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, he was third best behind stablemate Altior and Min, but not, on that evidence, in the same league as the front two. In post-race interviews, Henderson revealed his delight with the performance, but that he would need much more cut in the ground to show his best.

He was probably a touch fortunate to get those conditions in April at Aintree, where he battled to a narrow victory over Petit Mouchoir.

More predictably, it was testing on Saturday at Sandown, and we learned little from his ready victory.

It’s an unusual move to switch focus mid-season but it should be noted that, in the context of the Champion Hurdle, it has been done, successfully.

In the 1990/’91 season Morley Street contested three novice chases, winning the first, finishing runner-up to the great Remittance Man on the second, and pulling up in the Feltham in the third. After that he reverted to hurdles, over which he justified odds-on favouritism in a Grade Two just 11 days before winning the Champion Hurdle.

But he was a remarkably versatile and classy horse, with strong form on the Flat. He had finished fifth in the previous season’s Champion Hurdle, having finished fourth in the previous year’s Sun Alliance Hurdle, and the scale of what he achieved in winning the 1991 Champion Hurdle should not be underestimated.

Has Buveur D’Air improved enough from his novice season to be a genuine contender? Perhaps. To be favourite for the Champion Hurdle? Hardly.

And what of Yanworth, who is in the same ownership as Buveur D’Air? Surely there was a link between the latter’s switch, else why forego his promising novice campaign.

But the market doesn’t provide an emphatic answer to the Yanworth puzzle. He has drifted a little, but not to such extent that hope has disappeared for his supporters. Surely, as a Christmas Hurdle winner, he is a worthier inheritor of favouritism in the recently announced absence of Faugheen, and any little positivity for him over the coming weeks would, I believe, see him leapfrog Buveur D’Air in the market.

Further complexity has been added to Faugheen’s absence by the similar fate which has befallen his stablemate and leading Arkle fancy Min. The uncertainty lies with Yorkhill. He is currently favourite for the JLT Novices’ Chase, and that, I suspect, will remain target. The Arkle could be on the agenda, but I doubt it is prestigious enough to make it worth taking on Altior.

But then there’s the option of the Champion Hurdle. It is not Mullins’ modus operandi to switch a horse from novice chasing to hurdling, but the bad luck he has endured this season is enough to test even the greatest trainer and, given the happenings of the past 10 days or so, nothing can be taken as read.

Yorkhill was rated higher than Buveur D’Air as a novice, won the Neptune on good ground and, while he must be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle, were he to get an entry in the Red Mills Hurdle or any other suitable race over the smaller obstacles, he would almost certainly jump straight to the head of the market.

For now, Buveur D’Air holds onto favouritism, but in the fluid surroundings of the ante-post market, uneasy is he who wears the crown.


Speaking up for new ways to learn the Irish language

Slave to the Algorithm? What it's really like to be a Deliveroo rider

Ros na Rún actor's book tells tales of a Navan brothel

GameTech: Apex at the very top of Battle Royale games

More From The Irish Examiner