Reigning champion Buveur D’Air stars among 27 entries, up from 23 last year, for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on day one of The Festival.
Buveur D’Air (Nicky Henderson, 11/8 favourite with Unibet) has captured the two most recent renewals of the two-mile hurdling championship, worth £450,000, and is trying to become the sixth three-time winner of the Unibet Champion Hurdle since the race’s inception in 1927.
The eight-year-old is out to emulate Hatton’s Grace (1949, 1950, 1951), Sir Ken (1952, 1953, 1954), Persian War (1968, 1969, 1970), See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987) and Istabraq (1998, 1999, 2000).
Buveur D’Air, successful in 11 of his 13 starts over hurdles, looked as good as ever on his comeback this term when routing Irish hope Samcro (Gordon Elliott IRE, 25/1) by eight lengths in the G1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on December 1.
However, he suffered a shock short-head defeat at the hands of stablemate Verdana Blue (Nicky Henderson, 10/1) in the G1 Unibet Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park on December 26.
Nicky Henderson, with seven successes, has the best record of any trainer ever in the history of the Unibet Champion Hurdle. The six-strong team from Britain’s champion Jump trainer also features G2 Unibet International Hurdle victor Brain Power (16/1), Call Me Lord (14/1), Charli Parcs (100/1) and We Have A Dream (50/1), who was a leading juvenile last season.
Ireland’s champion Jump trainer Willie Mullins is responsible for five of the 12 Irish-trained entries, with his quintet headed by last year’s neck runner-up Melon (10/1) and rising star Laurina (7/2), who was a facile 18-length winner of the G2 Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at The Festival™ presented by Magners in 2018.
The Mullins’ hand is completed by Galway Hurdle scorer Sharjah (8/1), who has since bolstered his CV with G1 triumphs at Punchestown and Leopardstown, Cilaos Emery (33/1) and Saldier (33/1).
His main rival in Ireland, Gordon Elliott, has Samcro and outstanding racemare Apple’s Jade (10/1) among his four entries. Last season’s JCB Triumph Hurdle hero Farclas (33/1) and Tombstone (50/1) are also engaged for the County Meath handler.
Gavin Cromwell could have his first Unibet Champion Hurdle runner courtesy of Espoir D’Allen (28/1), who like Buveur D’Air is owned by JP McManus, the most successful owner in Unibet Champion Hurdle history with seven victories.
Espoir D’Allen has been successful on six of his seven starts over hurdles, with a 100 per cent record so far this season. The five-year-old started the campaign with victory in the G3 Fishery Lane Hurdle at Naas in November before registering an impressive eight-length success in the G3 Irish Independent Hurdle at Limerick over Christmas.
The County Meath-based Cromwell said: “Espoir D’Allen is in good form and we are happy with him.
“He will run next week in the G3 Limestone Lad Hurdle [Naas, January 27], and has been given an entry in the Champion Hurdle.
“We will have to see whether he runs in that race at Cheltenham or elsewhere.
“Five-year-olds don’t have a great record in the Champion Hurdle, but he is showing the right signs.
“We will see how he gets on at Naas first.”
The remaining Irish entries are the two most recent winners of the G1 Irish Champion Hurdle in Supasundae (Jessica Harrington IRE, 16/1) and Petit Mouchoir (Henry de Bromhead IRE, 33/1).
Improving grey Silver Streak (Evan Williams, 50/1) has made great strides over hurdles this season. After a decisive victory in the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las in October, the six-year-old ran twice at Cheltenham, going down by a neck in the G3 Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle at The November Meeting and filling the same position behind Brain Power in the G2 Unibet International Hurdle at The International on December 15.
Four greys have won the Unibet Champion Hurdle, the most recent being Rooster Booster in 2003.
Evan Williams, whose stables are in the Vale of Glamorgan, said: “Silver Streak is in good form and came out of his second in the International well.
“He has enjoyed a great season, with some excellent performances, and has run to a good level.
“I think we will probably run in the Unibet Champion Hurdle. You never know what will happen in these races.
“We are not going there thinking we will win it, but although it is a long shot, we will give it a go.
“Hopefully, there is more improvement to come and better ground is something that suits him.
“He will have a run before Cheltenham in one of the Champion Hurdle trials.”
Other entries in the Unibet Champion Hurdle include high-class stayer Wholestone (Nigel Twiston-Davies, 20/1), third in last season’s G1 Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle and 2018 G3 Randox Health County Hurdle victor Mohaayed (Dan Skelton, 66/1).