The JP MCManus decision to switch Buveur D’Air from fences back to hurdles came as quite a surprise, though it shouldn’t have.
Nicky Henderson’s talented youngster looked sure to be heading for the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in March, but suddenly finds himself a live Champion Hurdle contender. JP clearly believes that the Mullins contingent are vulnerable, and now is the time to attack with everything at his disposal.
Binocular in 2010, and Jezki in 2014 are the most recent winners of the Champion Hurdle to carry the famous Green and Gold silks, though it was Istabraq who famously carried the colours to a hat-trick of victories from 1998 to 2000.
This year’s Champion Hurdle is starting to resemble 2014’s, when McManus sent Jezki, My Tent Or Yours and Captain Cee Bee into battle against the Mullins favourite Hurricane Fly, and a young unexposed The New One. On that occasion, Jess Harrington’s charge defeated the more fancied My Tent Or Yours in a thrilling finish, with the ‘Captain’ back in fifth. ‘The Fly’ was then a 10-year-old, and though I hesitate to say it, was probably somewhat past his best. For what it’s worth, it’s my view that The New One was outpaced by the front two before staying on for a third-place finish. Understandably, Mr Twiston-Davies has a different opinion.
The field for this year’s renewal continues to evolve. Annie Power met with a setback and will not be there, and Mullins, though sounding confident, must be a little concerned over the wellbeing of Faugheen. The Champion Hurdle favourite, and winner from 2015, has not been seen on a racecourse for more than a year, and missed his intended return last weekend after a slight muscle issue. Chances are that he will now head directly to Cheltenham in March, without a prep-run. He’s a ‘tank’ of a horse, and is known to improve for a run or two.
It’s hard to believe that Faugheen will arrive on the opening day of the festival firing on all cylinders. The question is whether a 90% primed ‘Machine’ will be enough to repel a McManus assault.
Yanworth was expected to deliver the sternest challenge, having impressed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Alan King’s seven-year-old was due to run at Sandown this weekend, but has also met with a minor setback and may also now head straight to the Festival. In his ‘Weekender’ column, King, writing before the injury came to light, said: “He could have gone straight to Cheltenham, but he’s had only two races this season, and it’s a long time from the Christmas Hurdle to the Champion. It will do him no harm to have a bit more match practice.”
Unfortunately, yesterday JP McManus' racing manager Frank Berry announced: “He's just met with a small problem. He's tweaked a muscle in behind, it's nothing serious but he can't run this weekend. Hopefully it won't take too long to come right and we can get going with him again. Whether he runs again we'll just have to play it by ear, he could go straight to Cheltenham.” Again, by no means ideal, but at least Yanworth has had a couple of runs this winter.
In his absence, it looks like Buveur D’Air will now head to Sandown for the Contenders Hurdle. It was anticipated that Henderson’s hurdler, turned chaser, turned hurdler, would head north to Kelso in a couple of weeks, but a rather busy Frank Berry announced: “Obviously Buveur D'Air is in at Sandown, so it's still an option. We'll see how he is in the morning and we'll come to a decision then I'd imagine. Nicky had mentioned taking him up to Kelso, so we'll just see.”
On Twitter Henderson tweeted: “Change of plan! With Yanworth not going to Sandown, Buveur will now head there instead. Lots of chopping & changing this week!”
A trip to Sandown means that Henderson now has the top two in the market, with Brain Power already an intended runner. An impressive winner at Ascot prior to Christmas, I’m a huge fan of the horse, but this will come as a major test. He’s bred to become a chaser, and certainly has the physique to excel in that sphere. I’m not sure he’ll possess the speed to cope with Buveur D’Air on Saturday.
Decisions made by McManus have certainly given the Champion Hurdle picture a shake. In Nicky Henderson and Alan King, he has trainers that know how to win the main event in March. A McManus-Mullins clash is on, and let’s just hope that all the main contenders now arrive at the start on a thrilling opening day of the Festival.