D'AIR DOUBLES UP IN UNIBET CHAMPION HURDLE WITH THRILLING VICTORY
Seven Barrows maestro Nicky Henderson recorded his 59th victory at the Cheltenham Festival following a record seventh success in the G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle following Buveur D'Air's game win in the two-mile championship contest.
The first back-to-back winner of the hurdling highlight since Hardy Eustace in 2004 and 2005, Buveur D'Air, the 4/6 favourite was always prominent under Barry Geraghty and despite being headed by the Willie Mullins-trained Melon (7/1), the seven-year-old son of Crillon rallied tenaciously under Geraghty to win by a neck in a thrilling finish.
The Gordon Elliott-trained Mick Jazz (25/1) was three lengths further back in third; the first three clear.
A delighted Henderson said: "It was a brilliant race. They went a good gallop throughout and Buveur D'Air and Melon were able to then keep that gallop up in the closing stages, it was a great contest to keep that up the whole way.
"They were two very brave horses, with two brave jockeys. I think he did get headed but Barry said he was never worried as he thought he would always get there.
"Buveur D'Air had a battle on his hands, probably his first real battle this year. After his last race at Sandown, we were talking about him not having any really hard races this year, but today was one.
"Unlike some of his prep races, this was a proper race and he showed his class. He was headed but Barry was always happy. It was a proper race and Melon is a good horse, but Buveur D'Air just put his head down and battled.
"He didn't blow up, but he had a blow afterwards. He is a really good young horse, he did what he had to today.
"There's always pressure when you are trying to win these big races, so it's a big relief and it gives us confidence going into the week.
"We have four weeks until Aintree, so we could go back there again if there is soft ground in the going description. I'll speak to J P McManus and then we'll make a decision."
Winning owner J P McManus was also winning his seventh Champion Hurdle along with his 53rd Cheltenham Festival success and he was equally delighted.
McManus said: "I'm keeping up with Nicky! I'm thrilled as Barry missed out last year and whilst Noel gave him a great ride last year, it was nice that Barry was involved and got to share in it and enjoy it.
"Barry got the job done and looked strong as did Paul Townend on Melon and Barry just got the better of him.
"I thought we had it all to do after the last, but I was hoping that Barry's strength might get us through."
GERAGHTY IS WALKING ON AIR
It may have been Buveur D'Air's second consecutive Unibet Champion Hurdle triumph, but it was Barry Geraghty's first aboard the Nicky Henderson-trained seven-year-old.
Geraghty missed the 2017 Festival after puncturing a lung and breaking six ribs in a fall at Kempton at the end of February, and Noel Fehily was aboard Buveur D'Air for his first Unibet Champion Hurdle victory.
Buveur D'Air, the 4/6 favourite for this year's renewal, had to be hard ridden to overcome the tenacious Melon by a neck.
The champion hurdler is owned by Geraghty's patron J P McManus, and Geraghty said: "It was a long year last year, but it's been a great year this time and I can't complain. Coming here, you are banking on a winner. Bad luck was the only thing that was going to beat him [Buveur D'Air], and he didn't get bad luck and he won. It's great to get a winner - I missed last season and it's great to get a big winner for your boss."
Geraghty and Buveur D'Air beat the Willie Mullins-trained Melon, a 7/1 chance, by a neck. It was Geraghty's third Unibet Champion Hurdle winner [after Punjabi and Jezki] and his 35th Festival victory in total. He said: "I was concerned after they turned in, but the further up the straight I was going, the happier I was going, and I knew I could let Buveur D'Air pop the last and fill up in the process.
"There was nowhere to hide. The ground made it the ultimate test. The best horse was going to win, and thankfully I was on the best horse. He's proved he is very good - you don't win these back-to-back unless you are very good, and he's won everything all season. He's a top-class horse and he deserves the recognition. He scrapped it out today; he's been flashy all season because he hasn't had to deal with much, but today he had opposition and he lived up to it.
"It is real winter conditions and very tacky down the back straight. Buveur D'Air won it the hard way. I was trying to save as much as I could off the turn in and then go for him as late as possible. He found what was needed. I missed one [hurdle] down the back, which I did not expect. It was a proper race and the runner-up put it up. I thought he was coming to beat me, but my fella is battle-hardened and tough as nails.
"I think he proved there that he is a better horse than last year. He really dug deep and was a scrapper today."
FROM ISTABRAQ TO BUVEUR WITH J P
J P McManus looked back fondly on seven Unibet Champion Hurdle victories when reflecting on Buveur D'Air's success in today's feature race at The Festival.
Three wins for Istabraq, one each for Binocular and Jezki, and now two on the trot for Buveur D'Air are among highlights of the owner's 53 winners at Jump racing's greatest event. In a clean sweep for Irish jockeys the Nicky Henderson-trained Buveur D'Air, ridden by Barry Geraghty, beat the Paul Townend-ridden Melon by a neck, with Mick Jazz under Davy Russell in third - and for proud Irishman McManus that was a sight to enjoy, too.
McManus said: "That was fun! It was good to see Barry and Paul battling it out. Paul has enormous strength, but Barry held on - they are two great jockeys and both looked very strong in the finish. I was worrying for a while, and I knew we had a battle on our hands.
"I thought we would need a good one [going to the last hurdle] and I felt the other fella got away from it quicker. Melon maybe went a neck up on us, and I was glad to have Barry on my side.
"Buveur D'Air is just about the best around. He beat Melon by a neck and there was not a lot between them today - but enough, which counts! Last year we came here more in hope, and this time there were expectations, although I was worried about the ground. It's not all horses that can act well on this soft to heavy going.
"I have had many a battle on the racecourse with Joe Donnelly, the owner of Melon [who finished second] - he was a bookmaker, I was a punter and half a bookmaker, and at the time they felt more important than this winner today.
"It's very special to win any race at The Festival, and it's even better to win one of the championship races. All my winners were special on the day - Binocular seemed like the second coming at the time, Jezki was good - it's just so hard to compare them.
"When Istabraq won it was a very emotional day because of the death of John Durkan, who bought the horse and without whose input I would never have owned him. It was emotional for a lot of reasons, and there were tears and joy and a wonderful occasion, and when we think of Istabraq we always think of John."
In addition to Buveur D'Air, McManus expected to be represented in today's Unibet Champion Hurdle by triple runner-up My Tent Or Yours, but the horse was withdrawn this morning.
He said: "Today is great, and you hope to win when you have a 4/7 favourite, but for the last two weeks you are just hoping the phone isn't going to ring at half ten in the morning to say there is something wrong. Sometimes it's nicer to be beaten on the racecourse than to find your horse can't run and is standing in his stable."
MULLINS HAS TO SETTLE FOR SECOND
Melon, who started a 7/1 chance, delighted Willie Mullins his trainer with his close second in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
"It was a terrific performance from him." Mullins said "at least it vindicated what we thought of him. He just did not face the hood on his previous start. I think he is a horse who is going to improve. He will be better next year.
"I am not too worried about the ground, there are plenty of horses who will improve with better ground.
"Probably we will keep him hurdling rather than chasing but we will make those decisions later in the season.
"I am really looking forward to him.
"We may go for the Aintree hurdle with him but my preference normally would be Punchestown.
Mullins also trained the 4/1 chance Faugheen who came home in sixth and Yorkhill (PU), commented: "Faugheen just wants a trip at this stage of his career. Ruby got off him and said he just wants a longer trip nowadays.
"I may send him over a longer trip at Punchestown or maybe look at the race in Aintree.
"Yorkhill just isn't performing.
"It is a bit of a head scratcher. Sometimes horses take a year out.
"He has been up and down in the trips, fences, hurdles...
"All of my runners have come back fine."
Paul Townend, jockey of the second-placed Melon, said: "He ran a cracker. he was very professional and settled great.
"We winged the last and I thought we had our head in front but the line was getting further away in the last 20 yards.
"He has so little experience he can only build on that run. He was more professional today than he was in his last run - he is definitely a horse going forward."
2018 G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle - Result
1 BUVEUR D'AIR (FR) NICKY HENDERSON 11ST 10LB BARRY GERAGHTY 4/6 FAV
2 Melon W. P. Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb Paul Townend 7/1
3 Mick Jazz (FR) (Hood, Tongue Strap) Gordon Elliott, Ireland 11st 10lb Davy Russell 25/1
4 Identity Thief (IRE) Henry de Bromhead, Ireland 11st 10lb Sean Flanagan 50/1
5 Elgin Alan King 11st 10lb Wayne Hutchinson 12/1
6 Faugheen (IRE) (Sheepskin C/P) W. P. Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb Ruby Walsh 4/1
7 Wicklow Brave (Blinkers) W. P. Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb Mr P. W. Mullins 14/1
8 Ch'tibello (FR) Dan Skelton 11st 10lb Harry Skelton 33/1
9 John Constable (IRE) (Tongue Strap) Evan Williams 11st 10lb Leighton Aspell 66/1
PU Yorkhill (IRE) W. P. Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb David Mullins 14/1
PU Charli Parcs (FR) Nicky Henderson 11st 10lb Noel Fehily 100/1
Distances: nk, 3, 9, 1¾, 8, ½, 1¼, 17
Non-Runners: MY TENT OR YOURS (IRE) (Vet's Certificate (No Reason)), VERDANA BLUE (IRE) (Going)
Tote win: £1.50 PL: £1.10 £2.10 £4.20 Ex: £6.80
SEVENTH CHAMPION HURDLE WIN FOR J P MCMANUS FOLLOWING ISTABRAQ (1998, 1999, 2000), BINOCULAR (2010), JEZKI (2014), BUVEUR D'AIR (2017, 2018)
SEVENTH CHAMPION HURDLE WIN FOR NICKY HENDERSON FOLLOWIUNG SEE YOU THEN (1985, 1986, 1987), PUNJABI (2009), BINOCULAR (2010), BUVEUR D'AIR (2017, 2018)
THIRD CHAMPION HURDLE WIN FOR BARRY GERAGHTY FOLLOWING PUNJABI (2009), JEZKI (2014), BUVEUR D'AIR (2018)
NICKY HENDERSON -
UNIBET CHAMPION HURDLE RECORD BREAKER
Born: May 12, 2011
Breeding: b g Crillon (FR) - History (FR) (Alesso (USA))
Owner: J P McManus
*Today won the G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle for the second year running.
*Became the first back-to-back winner of the two-mile championship contest since Hardy Eustace in 2004 and 2005.
*Unbeaten this season with four victories. He easily won the G1 Unibet Fighting Fifth Hurdle, G1 Unibet Christmas Hurdle and latterly the Listed Contenders' Hurdle at Sandown Park on February 3.
*Sole defeat in 10 hurdle races came when third behind stable companion Altior in the 2016 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle at The Festival.
Race record: Starts: 17; Wins: 14; 2nd: 1; 3rd: 1; Win & Place Prize Money: £855,737
First winner as a trainer - Dukery at Uttoxeter, October 14, 1978
Born - Lambeth, London, on December 10, 1950
Background - The son of financier and amateur jockey John Henderson MBE, who founded Racecourse Holdings Trust, the forerunner for Jockey Club Racecourses and the owner of Cheltenham Racecourse, he was educated at Eton and the Royal Agricultural College.
He worked for stockbrokers Cazenove in London and Australia, where he gained experience riding work at Randwick, before devoting himself full-time to racing.
Henderson first made his name in Britain as an amateur rider, finishing runner-up three times in the non-professional championship.
His main wins as a jockey came on Happy Warrior in the 1977 Fox Hunters Chase at Aintree and on Acquaint in Sandown's Imperial Cup in the same year. Henderson recorded his 78th and final win on Rolls Rambler in the Horse & Hound Cup at Stratford in June, 1978.
He became assistant trainer to Fred Winter in 1974 and received his own training licence in July, 1978, taking over from Roger Charlton at Windsor House Stables in Lambourn, Berkshire.
He moved to Seven Barrows, to the north of the village, in 1992, after swapping yards with Peter Walwyn.
One of Britain's leading Jump trainers, Henderson has sent out well over 2,500 winners and, with 59 successes, is the all-time leading trainer at the Cheltenham Festival.
His unprecedented tally includes a record seven Unibet Champion Hurdles, two Timico Cheltenham Gold Cups, four Betway Queen Mother Champion Chases, two Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdles, and two Ryanair Chases.
Henderson has won the Jump trainers' championship four times - 1985/86, 1986/87, 2012/2013, 2016/2017 - and is on course to retain the title this season.
He was made a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order in the 2018 New Year's Honours List, reflecting his role as principal Jump trainer to the late Queen Mother and Her Majesty The Queen.