This year’s Champion Hurdle looks very exciting on paper. Buveur D’Air is going in search of his third win the race. He has the opportunity to cement his place in the pantheon of great 2 mile hurdlers with the likes of Istabraq, Persian War and Hatton’s Grace. However this year he faces arguably his toughest opposition. Apple’s Jade and Laurina are going to put his domination of the race in huge danger. To many pundits the race is between these three horses and the market reflects this. Currently Buveur D’air is the slight favourite at best priced 2/1. I’m willing to oppose him and any of the Twiterati who follow me will know Laurina is my fancy.
The largely common view of Laurina is that she is short of pace and her jumping is not slick enough. Many of these people also thought Samcro was an almost certainty for the Champion Hurdle. Question marks about the strength of her form are also being raised. Laurina has only raced against mares and is yet to face geldings. She is unbeaten in seven starts and won the Mares’ Novices Hurdle at last year’s Cheltenham Festival by an astounding 18 lengths. It was visually the most impressive performance of the entire festival, in my opinion. This year she has won a basically pointless 2 runner race at Sandown and the Quevega Mares Hurdle at Punchestown on her most recent start. Physically Laurina is big, powerful mare with a long stride. Even though she received her flu vaccine before Punchestown Willie Mullins knew he had to run her in order to sharpen her up. His comments after the race emphasised this; she took a good blow and Ruby said she needed it badly. When he asked her to move up she moved up nicely, and did everything he asked her. She jumped a bit slow for my liking when she wasn’t on the bridle but when he gave her the office to go she sharpened up her jumping. Ruby said she was idling in front. She got her flu jab last week and we missed a week’s training. We had to take a pull, and I’m happy knowing how we would normally shape her training coming up to a race like this. In short she has a massive amount of improvement in her. Prior to the race she was rated 155. She carried six pounds more than the 145 rated Stormy Ireland, who is a good yardstick. Laurina managed to beat her easily by 6 lengths without being extended. Factoring in improvement Laurina is at least a 160 rated mare. To put some perspective on that, Buveur D’air was rated 169 in last year’s race. In hindsight it is doubtful if he actually ran to that mark. Melon was beaten a neck off 160 by him at level weights and the 156 rated Mick Jazz was 3l behind them. I think Buveur D’Air’s mark his actually inflated. The handicapper put him up to 172 after beating Samcro by 8l in the Fighting Fifth. That now looks ridiculous. Furthermore Verdana Blue rated 152, getting a seven pounds mares allowance, beat him narrowly at Christmas. Buveur D’Air is running nowhere near his lofty mark. We must remember that he was on a mark of 157 when he won his second Champion Hurdle and that was a weak race. In reality Buveur D’Air is at best a 165 horse and the British handicapping team seems to be giving absurd handicap ratings to the top horses. After all Cyrname is now the best horse in training. Both Laurina and Apple’s Jade will receive 7 pounds from Buveur D’Air. So to those suggesting Buveur D’Air has pounds in hand it appears that you need to do your homework.
I am sure you have noticed I left Apple’s Jade out of that handicapping debate. Undoubtedly she has the ability and is rated 165 in Ireland. My issue with Apple’s Jade is her mentality and running style. It is quite clear that she is a free going mare and normally she front runs. She can often get away with this style against weaker opposition. For example, she made all in the Lismullen and over 3m at Leopardstown during Christmas. I personally think her best trip is 2m 4f. For instance she was beaten by Rashaan in a WKD Hurdle at Down Royal and by Irving in a Fighting Fifth over 2m. At last year’s festival she finished a disappointing third in the Mares Hurdle when 1/2 favourite. It appeared that she ran too keen and wasted vital energy. To her credit she battled up the hill, but was passed by Midnight Tour and Benie Des Dieux. They had simply used their energy more efficiently. I think Jack Kennedy’s tactics are going to be crucial. In a way he is in a ‘catch 22’ situation. He knows he has to make use of her as she stays further than 2 miles, but at the same time he cannot go too fast. Also he is unlikely to get an easy lead. Will Charli Parcs be used to pester her? That is probably a very cynical view but it may occur. I really do not think Apple’s Jade will be able to burn off a field of this quality from the front. She is likely to set it up for hold up horses. Ruby Walsh is probably the most tactically astute jockey of all and he rides Cheltenham better than anyone. He is likely to track Barry Geraghty the whole way round. I am confident Laurina will be able cope with the pace due to her high cruising speed. As Willie as said her jumping is much better with a faster tempo. This may be a bold prediction but I think Apple’s Jade, Laurina and Buveur D’Air could jump the second last together. From my perspective I hope Laurina can then cross the line in front. Laurina is a general 7/2 shot which I think is reasonably fair. She might be pushed out to 5s on the day, so I would wait until then if you thinking of backing her.
Sharjah is next in the market and is probably overpriced. He won the Galway Hurdle off top weight and is on an upward curve. He has done nothing wrong since Galway and was impressive in both the Morgiana and Ryanair Hurdle. I can’t see him winning he could be one for each way punters and is available at 12/1. Melon has been awful this year and it is hard to see him being as close as last year. Espoir D’Allen will be ridden quietly and might be doing his best work late on. It would be quite a big shock if a horse from outside the front three in the betting wins this year’s renewal. I am really looking forward to the race and it promises to be a great spectacle. Let’s hope that all the main contenders get there in one piece.