Battling Buveur D'Air does it again – but not before Melon is just squeezed out
After the pain, the gain. Nicky Henderson saddled Buveur D'Air to become the first horse to win back-to-back Champion Hurdles since Hardy Eustace in 2005 – but it was a mighty close-run thing.
Within the past week Henderson had been forced to rule out Top Notch, We Have A Dream and On The Blind Side and scratch My Tent Or Yours on the day of racing, plus endure a late injury scare for Altior.
But Buveur D'Air righted the ship for Britain's champion trainer after a desperate overhauling of the gallant Melon by a neck in the nick of time.
Approaching the third-last of a Unibet Champion Hurdle run at a blistering gallop, thanks to the insertion of stablemate Charli Parcs as pacemaker for the 4-6 favourite, Ruby Walsh shifted to his right on Faugheen, creating room for his own stablemate Melon on their inside.
But Barry Geraghty was having none of it on Buveur D'Air and, in trying to hold his line, the pair made contact.
As Faugheen dropped back Melon slipped through and battle was engaged from over the last two flights between the Champion Hurdle's dominant powerhouses of Henderson and Mullins.
It was nip and tuck all the way to the line but it Buveur D'Air who just pulled out more, winning the contest by a neck to deliver a seventh Champion Hurdle to the race's most successful trainer.
"This hasn't been easy and yesterday was as bad as it gets," said Henderson. "The last weeks of preparation aren't a lot of fun. You know there's something waiting round the corner to bite you, everybody has had it and a lot of public horses are missing.
"Today they went a really good gallop and when those two picked it up from two out they kicked in again. I bet it was a course record for heavy ground.
"Buveur D'Air has been winning races by huge distances all winter. It's the first time he's had a race all season. That was worrying me.
"The ground was never a worry. Barry said he didn't blow up. I was even going to say he might come on for the run, but he had a good blow because he hasn't had to knuckle down before."
Seven-year-old Buveur D'Air's only defeat in ten starts over hurdles had come when third to stablemate Altior in the 2016 Supreme Novices'.
"Last year we came here more in hope, and this time there were expectations, although I was worried about the ground," said owner JP McManus.
"I've 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 they felt more important than this winner today."
There have been five triple winners of the Champion Hurdle. Henderson trained one of them, See You Then, to take the prize in 1985, 1986 and 1987 and McManus owned another in Istabraq (1998, 1999, 2000).
"It's a special race. The first big race we ever won was the Champion Hurdle in the See You Then days," said Henderson.
"God willing we'll be trying again next year. If we're lucky and he gets back here there will be more young contenders, but we'll aim for it.
"Buveur D'Air is a young horse who's done everything right. Even if they thought it was a penalty kick and he got a battle, he did what he had to do and did it well.
"He probably was a neck down, but once he put his head down he knew exactly what he was doing."
Faugheen crossed the line in sixth, 22 lengths behind the winner, and trainer Willie Mullins accepted the brilliant winner of the 2015 Champion Hurdle is no longer the force of old, nor indeed the best hurdler in his stable.
In addition to Faugheen and Melon, Mullins saddled Wicklow Brave, who was seventh, and Yorkhill, who was pulled up.
"Faugheen probably wants a longer trip at this stage of his career," said the trainer. "He’s just not got that spark for two miles. We’ll probably go up in trip for Punchestown or possibly the race at Aintree. The horse is fine – all my runners have come back fine.
"It was terrific performance from Melon and it’s vindicated what we thought of him. He just didn’t face the hood last time and he’s a horse who's going to improve.
"He'll be better next year. We might keep him hurdling next year rather than chasing. I’d imagine he’ll go to Punchestown."
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