Buveur D’Air wins Champion Hurdle after thrilling battle with Melon
The Nicky Henderson runner had sauntered to success on his previous three starts this season and was the hot favourite to become the first horse to win back-to-back renewals of the race since Hardy Eustace
Talent can take a horse only so far up the hill at the Festival. A true champion also has an obstinate streak, a refusal to concede that makes the difference in the final strides, and it was that which got Buveur D’Air over the line in the Champion Hurdle here on Tuesday.
“I thought he was coming to beat me,” Barry Geraghty, Buveur D’Air’s jockey, said of Melon, the runner-up, and on the run to the final flight there were many thousands of punters who had taken odds-on about the favourite who thought the same.
Faugheen, the champion in 2015, had already run his race but Melon, his stable companion at the Willie Mullins yard, was alongside under Paul Townend and, for a few strides on the run-in, they appeared to have seized a narrow lead.
But Melon was up against the defending champion and, when Geraghty asked for more, Buveur D’Air’s response was immediate. Heavy ground made the task more difficult still but inch by inch he clawed back the deficit to cross the line a neck to the good.
The victory was a record seventh success in the Champion Hurdle for both Nicky Henderson and J P McManus, Buveur D’Air’s trainer and owner respectively, and the winner will now attempt to emulate See You Then, who took the race three years in a row for Henderson in the 1980s.
“It was a brilliant race,” Henderson said. “They went a good gallop throughout and Buveur D’Air and Melon were able to 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. Buveur D’Air had a battle on his hands, probably his first real battle this year. After his last race at Sandown [in February], we were talking about him not having any really hard races this year, but today was one.
“He did what he had to do and he did it well. He probably was a neck down but once Barry said, ‘Come on, it’s time to kick in,’ he put his head down and he knew exactly what he was doing.”
Geraghty, who is McManus’s retained jockey, missed last year’s success – and the entire Festival – due to an injury sustained in a fall from Charli Parcs, who set the pace for Buveur D’Air in the race.
“There was nowhere to hide,” Geraghty said. “The ground made it the ultimate test. The best horse was going to win and, thankfully, I was on the best horse.
“You don’t win these back to back unless you are very good and he’s won everything all season.
“He scrapped it out today. He’s been flashy all season because he hasn’t had to deal with much but today he had the opposition and he lived up to it. It was a proper race and the runner-up put it up but my fella is battle-hardened and tough as nails.”
Buveur D’Air’s win came on the 20th anniversary of the first of Istabraq’s three wins in the Champion Hurdle in 1998, which was also the first of McManus’s seven victories. Istabraq was odds-on to record an unprecedented fourth success in 2001, when the meeting was abandoned due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and the owner cast his mind back two decades as he celebrated his latest Champion Hurdle winner.
“When Istabraq won it was a very emotional day because of the death [from cancer] of John Durkan,” McManus said, “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.
“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 and I was glad to have Barry on my side.
“I have had many a battle on the racecourse with Joe Donnelly [the owner of Melon]. He was a bookmaker, I was a punter and half a bookmaker, and at the time those battles felt more important than this winner today.”
Like Istabraq, Buveur D’Air is now a dual winner of the Champion Hurdle at the age of seven and he is already quoted at around 5-2 to complete a treble next season.
Melon is also likely to be aimed towards next year’s race while Mullins feels that Faugheen, a brilliant champion three years ago, now needs further than two miles. “I may send him over a longer trip at Punchestown or maybe look at the race at Aintree,” he said.