2020 Champion Hurdle ante-post preview – The one to beat, the big danger and the dark horse in Tuesday’s Championship race
Our expert casts his eye through the early betting for the feature championship race on day one of the Cheltenham Festival picking out who he feels is the main contender, the big danger and an overlooked dark horse.
The 2019 Champion Hurdle was billed as the race of the entire Cheltenham Festival, with three superstar hurdlers set to clash on day one. Yet, the race itself turned out to be a damp squib. Returning champion, Buveur D’Air fell fairly early in the piece and Apple’s Jade, who had been on fire during the first half of the season, simply failed to fire. Laurina too produced a surprisingly poor performance on the day, allowing Espoir D’Allen to come through and claim a shock victory.
Following a tragic turn of events, Espoir D’Allen had to be put down following a freak accident in training. While this is a terrible blow for Gavin Cromwell and his team and we send everyone involved our condolences, there’s an opportunity for a new king, or queen, of the hurdling ranks to thrust their name into the spotlight. Here’s our guide to the 2020 Champion Hurdle.
2020 Champion Hurdle Ante-Post Preview
THE ONE TO BEAT – KLASSICAL DREAM
Undoubtedly, the pretender to Espoir D’Allen’s departed throne in 2020 is KLASSICAL DREAM, who enjoyed a fantastic novice campaign and his season will be tailored around a tilt on Tuesday’s championship race.
Following a low-key debut victory at Leopardstown, trainer Willie Mullins pushed his youngster straight into Grade One company on just his second start on Irish soil and Klassical Dream opened his account at the highest level with a narrow victory over Aramon. In the build-up to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Ruby Walsh’s mount looked fractious, holding his head at a low, awkward angle. Klassical Dream pulled his way to the front a long way from home, but there was no stopping Mullins’ five-year-old as he put pedal to the metal, powering up Cleeve Hill to secure an excellent victory.
Walsh’s mount looked more composed on his final start of the season at Punchestown and put on an excellent display of jumping, thumping Aintree winner Felix Desjy by five lengths without breaking a sweat. If the great Willie Mullins can get Klassical Dream back to Cheltenham at the peak of his powers, I can’t foresee anyone being good enough to beat him.
THE BIG DANGER – BUVEUR D’AIR
Nicky Henderson trains the trio of hurdles who currently follow Klassical Dream in the ante-post market and all three can be given a big shout.
Fusil Raffles was forced to miss Cheltenham after picking up a cut during his Adonis Hurdle victory, returning to action at Punchestown to defeat Fakir D’Oudairies in the Grade One Champion Four Year Old Hurdle. With Fusil Raffles on the shelf, Pentland Hills flew the flag for Henderson at Cheltenham and Aintree, and he did it in fine style, winning both Grade Ones for juveniles.
While both could clearly come on during their second season’s over hurdles, I would still rather back BUVEUR D’AIR out of the three and Henderson will be desperate to make up for last year’s fall and secure a third Champion Hurdle, dominating the Cheltenham betting tips.
Buveur D’Air bounced back from disappointments at Cheltenham and Aintree, where he was outstayed over two-and-a-half miles by Supasundae, with a fine victory in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle. Henderson has revealed his top hurdler has returned to the stable in excellent shape following his summer break and, at the age of just eight, he could still have some improvement left in his locker.
THE DARK HORSE – SALDIER
There are a couple of outsiders I’d really like to highlight, who would be big players at Cheltenham should the ground come up good.
Verdana Blue beat Buveur D’Air on quick winter ground in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and, after finishing fifth at Cheltenham, proved her class with a tremendous triumph in the Scottish Champion Hurdle. Sharjah had established himself as Willie Mullins’ best two-mile hurdler during the first half of the campaign and was unluckily brought down by Buveur D’Air early in the Champion Hurdle. Although he has good form on heavy ground, he’s excellent on the quicker ground in the past and offers plenty of ante-post value.
The likelihood of getting good ground on the first day at Cheltenham, however, is slim at best, and an outsider who seems to handle all sorts of conditions is Sharjah’s teammate, SALDIER.
After just one juvenile outing, a ten-length triumph on heavy ground, Mullins threw Saldier into the 2018 Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham, where he finished fifth behind many more experienced rivals. An improved performance followed in a Grade Two at Fairyhouse, before Saldier announced himself as an exciting prospect moving forwards at Punchestown, scooting clear after the last to win his first Grade One.
On his reappearance last year, Saldier looked like he had the beating of Espoir D’Allen in the Fishery Lane at Naas, only to fall at the final hurdle. Willie Mullins chose to give Saldier plenty of time to overcome that setback and I expect he will be thrown straight into Grade One company when he returns to action during the winter.