Buveur D’Air beats Melon in the 2018 Champion Hurdle
Image supplied by The Jockey Club

Buveur D’Air entered the rarified territory of a dual Champion Hurdle winner after a pulsating fight to retain his crown, at the expense of Melon.

With three-time runner-up My Tent Or Yours a non-runner, a field of eleven lined-up for one of the season’s highlights.

As the race got underway, it was the 2015 Champion Faugheen who went on from Charli Parcs, Identity Thief and Buveur D’Air as they cleared the first flight.

Settling down, Charli Parcs edged into the lead from Faugheen, with Identity Thief and Buveur D’Air virtually matching strides and followed by Melon and Elgin, as the field passed the stands and headed out into the country.

Charli Parcs took the field down the back with Faugheen for company and this pair held a three length lead from Buveur D’Air who in turn was a couple clear of Identity Thief and Melon.

Faugheen made an error though and Charli Parcs was suddenly six lengths clear of Faugheen and Buveur D’Air, who was ridden quietly.

At the top of the hill, Charli Parcs was still well clear of Faugheen and Buveur D’Air, with Melon to the inside but a little short of room.

But Charli Parcs dropped away quickly and Buveur D’Air went on from Melon and Mick Jazz, as Faugheen faded.

Heading to the last, Bueveur D’Air edged on from Melon but the two landed together at the last and settled down for a great battle.

Buveur D’Air was joined on the run-in by Melon and no quarter was given by the pair, with Mick Jazz clinging to their coat-tails and running the race of his life.

Just in the dying strides Melon’s will appeared to ever-so slightly flounder and Buveur D’Air and Barry Geraghty – who missed the meeting through injury last year, inched ahead to claim his second Champion Hurdle, becoming the first horse to do so since Hardy Eustace in 2005.

Melon lost nothing in defeat and Mick Jazz ran brilliantly for third, ahead of a rejuvenated Identity Thief.

For Nicky Henderson, this was another red letter moment and along with owner JP McManus, a seventh Champion Hurdle Triumph. Many had questioned the strength of Buveur D’Air’s efforts this season but when he reached the telling moment today, the seven year old responded.

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 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, 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, 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 D’Air 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.”

Melon, 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 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 Grade 1 Unibet Champion Hurdle – Result

1 BUVEUR D’AIR (FR) NICKY HENDERSON 11ST 10LB BARRY GERAGHTY
2 Melon W. P. Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb Paul Townend
3 Mick Jazz (FR) (Hood, Tongue Strap) Gordon Elliott, Ireland 11st 10lb Davy Russell
4 Identity Thief (IRE) Henry de Bromhead, Ireland 11st 10lb Sean Flanagan
5 Elgin Alan King 11st 10lb Wayne Hutchinson
6 Faugheen (IRE) (Sheepskin C/P) W. P. Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb Ruby Walsh
7 Wicklow Brave (Blinkers) W. P. Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb Mr P. W. Mullins
8 Ch’tibello (FR) Dan Skelton 11st 10lb Harry Skelton
9 John Constable (IRE) (Tongue Strap) Evan Williams 11st 10lb Leighton Aspell
PU Yorkhill (IRE) W. P. Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb David Mullins
PU Charli Parcs (FR) Nicky Henderson 11st 10lb Noel Fehily

11 ran

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)