Buveur, Apple's and Supasundae clash in thrilling Champion Hurdle
Betdaq Punchestown Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) | 2m | 4yo+ | RTE2/RTV
Buveur bids for winning Irish debut
The last time Buveur D'Air was in Ireland he was enjoying his annual summer holiday but the dual Champion Hurdle hero will be running in the country for the first time when he seeks to return to winning ways in another fascinating Punchestown showdown.
Before he can enjoy a spot of relaxation at owner JP McManus's Martinstown estate, Buveur D'Air must renew rivalry with Supasundae, who proved too strong at the end of a gruelling battle on testing ground in the Aintree Hurdle.
Prior to that Buveur D'Air had fallen at the third flight of the Champion Hurdle, while he also lost out to his Nicky Henderson-trained stable companion Verdana Blue in Kempton's Christmas Hurdle. That means the eight-year-old heads to the Betdaq Punchestown Champion Hurdle in the unusual position of having lost more races than he has won this season.
Henderson, who will be legging up Mark Walsh in the absence of regular rider Barry Geraghty, said: "He ran a very good race at Aintree, certainly considering his fall at Cheltenham. Hannah Ryan, who rides him every day, says he feels really well and his work has been good.
"Obviously there's nothing between us and Supasundae on Aintree form, but Buveur is in good shape and I'm coming into the race looking forward to it."
Pros Brilliant at his best and the classiest member of the field if on song
Cons Has become far from invincible and form has deteriorated since his Fighting Fifth Hurdle triumph
Will we see the real Apple's Jade?
During the winter Apple's Jade was absolutely magnificent. We have not seen the same Apple's Jade in her two spring outings, but connections are hoping she can end her season on a wonderful high.
Already a dual Punchestown festival winner, Apple's Jade took the Hatton's Grace Hurdle, Leopardstown's Christmas Hurdle and the Irish Champion Hurdle by a combined total of 62 lengths. She was, quite simply, sublime.
But at Cheltenham and Aintree she was not.
Sent off 7-4 favourite for the Champion Hurdle, she was a distant sixth. Then she was moved back up in trip for the Grade 1 marathon hurdle on Grand National day and was much like her former self, only succumbing to If The Cap Fits and Roksana on the line. Nevertheless, she was still some way below the heights she had reached at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown.
Even so, it was astonishing one bookmaker quoted Apple's Jade at 11-2 when declarations for this race were unveiled. She will be sent off at odds much shorter than that.
Trainer Gordon Elliott said: "Cheltenham just wasn't her. She was better at Aintree without being the same mare who was so good earlier in the season.
"She has been in good form since she came home from Aintree and the way she won the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown means she deserves another crack in a Grade 1 over two miles. That's why we're coming here. We're very happy with her at home and she seems very well in herself."
Pros The one to beat if able to recapture the form she showed during the winter
Cons Ran terribly at Cheltenham and even a reproduction of her Aintree third would likely not be good enough here
Underappreciated Supasundae chases more Grade 1 honours
Supasundae tackles the Punchestown Champion Hurdle as title-holder, but trainer Jessica Harrington remains convinced her marvellous servant fails to receive the respect he deserves.
His success at this festival last year was made easier by the dramatic falls of Samcro and Melon, whose late exit again might cause some to devalue what Supasundae achieved in the Aintree Hurdle.
However, Supasundae has long been one of the sport's most consistent and dependable performers, so much so that his below-par effort in the Stayers' Hurdle at Cheltenham was entirely out of character – and it was a run that Harrington blames on herself.
"He's still totally underappreciated," said Harrington of Robbie Power's mount.
"His record in the big races is amazing. What happened at Cheltenham was my fault, as I made the wrong decision by running him in the Stayers' Hurdle given the ground, but this time Robert was adamant that I only entered him in the Champion Hurdle.
"He takes a lot of getting fit because he's so idle. He makes Robert work very hard indeed, but he also gives and gives and gives."
Harrington added: "I was delighted with him at Aintree. This is another hot race, but he has beaten Buveur D'Air and everything else in the race except Apple's Jade."
Pros Almost certain to run his race, and if he does he is likely to be bang in contention
Cons His task was made easier in this contest last year and perhaps he is not as good as Buveur D'Air and Apple's Jade if they fire
Melon has chance to atone for costly falls
What would have happened had Melon stood up at Aintree? We may get the chance to find out on Friday.
The seven-year-old was two lengths clear when stepping at the third-last flight and giving Paul Townend no chance of keeping the partnership intact. It was also at the third-last that he fell in last season's Punchestown Champion Hurdle.
Those untimely departures hardly boost confidence in Melon's claims, but he is an extremely talented horse, having finished second at Cheltenham in the last two runnings of the Champion Hurdle. He seldom seems to win but could bother Apple's Jade if adopting the front-running tactics employed on his most recent two outings.
"I don't think he was done with when he fell at Aintree," said Townend. "He didn't feel like he was stopping and, the way the others finished the race, I'm convinced he would have had a big say.
"He seems to be coming back to himself and deserves to win a Grade 1. There aren't too many horses who can finish second in back-to-back runnings of the Champion Hurdle. I'd like to think he goes there with a decent chance."
This time Melon forms part of a twin-pronged Willie Mullins challenge, the other half of which is the evergreen ten-year-old Wicklow Brave, who also fell last time out but won this contest under Patrick Mullins two years ago before finishing second to Supasundae in 2018. Moreover, he was only caught in the very last stride of the Coral Cup in March.
Melon pros Was in the process of running a big race at Aintree and surely has a valuable prize in him
Melon cons Has a poor wins-to-runs record and took a horrible fall last time
Outsiders attempt to recapture former glories
Summerville Boy and Petit Mouchoir, the remaining two runners, would have been genuine contenders at the peak of their powers. The problem is their powers seemed to peak some time ago.
Perhaps more hope can be held out for Summerville Boy given it was only in March last year that he captured the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Unfortunately he has not built on that victory in three runs this term and was particularly disappointing when 33 lengths behind Supasundae at Aintree.
Petit Mouchoir was also extremely good in his pomp – he landed the 2017 Irish Champion Hurdle – but in his best run this season he was 21 lengths behind fellow Gigginstown team member Apple's Jade in February.
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