Mick Fitzgerald on how Buveur D'Air and Apple's Jade measure up for big showdown
Amid all the excitement on the first day of the festival, the headline act that is the Champion Hurdle stands alone, and in 2019 we have an equine clash befitting the race's status.
Two-time defending champion Buveur D'Air meets the mighty mare Apple's Jade in a contest that was only confirmed following Apple's Jade's career-best 16-length domination of the Irish Champion Hurdle a month ago.
Heavyweight clashes are often long in the making, carefully promoted and well prepared for, allowing for the months of talk and debate to reach fever pitch just before the opening bell rings or the tape drops.
This is racing's equivalent of Eddie Hearn announcing Anthony Joshua will fight Tyson Fury at the O2 Arena next month.
Mick Fitzgerald rode in the Champion Hurdle on 11 occasions and, despite never winning, is as well placed as any to assess the credentials of the two leading players.
"It looks a lot better race than we thought it might be six months ago – with the mares entering the picture suddenly Buveur D'Air isn't odds-on any more," the former top jockey says.
"With the addition of Apple's Jade as well as Laurina, it suddenly becomes a very good Champion Hurdle."
Following Buveur D'Air's imperious seasonal reappearance, when easily casting Samcro aside in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, there were fears that the festival's day one showpiece may turn into something of a procession.
However, his defeat at 1-4 in the Christmas Hurdle at the hands of stablemate Verdana Blue, as well as Apple's Jade's four Graded wins by a combined 73 lengths, have made the champion appear more fallible than he has at any point in the past two seasons.
Mick's verdict: "The thing you have to look at with Apple's Jade is the time that she won the Irish Champion Hurdle in. It was a full four seconds faster than the big-field two-mile handicap on the same card – that takes some doing.
"Then again Apple's Jade got beaten at 1-2 in the Mares' Hurdle last year and got no allowance, so there's no guarantee with anything at Cheltenham.
"Her performances this year are far superior to those we saw from her last year – if she can maintain that level we are in for a hell of a race.
"Everything Buveur D'Air has done this season will have been working back from next Tuesday, and if Apple's Jade doesn't bring her best then she won't even see him."
Girls v boys
While it is true the Champion Hurdle has been a race traditionally dominated by geldings, it is also true that jump racing's efforts to promote mares' races throughout the past two seasons are bringing about something of a changing of the guard.
In 2016, Annie Power became only the fourth mare to win the race in its history, and it is no surprise that only three years later, two of the leading three fancies for the race are also of that sex.
The key issue here is the 7lb weight allowance that both Apple's Jade and Laurina will be in receipt of from the reigning champion.
With Buveur D'Air officially rated 172 and Apple's Jade on 165, as far the handicapper is concerned, the pair will be level-pegging at the weights next Tuesday.
Mick's verdict: "You'd rather get the weight than give it, that's for sure, and I have no doubt that was one of the main attractions of putting Apple's Jade in the race – the 7lb is a big draw. Annie Power won the Champion with that allowance, and there's no doubt about it, it's a huge advantage."
The trainers of the big two could hardly have different Champion Hurdle records.
Since 2009 Nicky Henderson has saddled 23 horses in the race, winning it four times with Punjabi (2009), Binocular (2010) and of course in the past two seasons with Buveur D'Air. In contrast Gordon Elliott has never trained the winner of the race, but perhaps more surprisingly he has sent out just the one Champion Hurdle runner in that period when Mick Jazz finished third in the race last year.
Mick's verdict: "I don't think Gordon Elliott gets enough credit for getting Mick Jazz into third in last year's race. He hasn't had that many runners in the Champion Hurdle either, but his record on a wider level for a trainer of his age at the festival is pretty good.
"Nicky is a master. One thing you know with him is that Buveur D'Air's whole season will have revolved around the Champion Hurdle, and that's why he is such a good trainer at the festival – he targets these races right from the start of the season."
By the numbers
Owner: Gigginstown House Stud
Official rating: 165
Career wins: 14
Grade 1 wins: 10
Festival record: 1-2-3
Career earnings: £712,643
Owner: JP McManus
Official rating: 172
Career hurdle wins: 12
Grade 1 hurdle wins: 7
Festival record: 2-1-3
Career earnings: £973,541
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