Buveur D’Air’s slightly unexpected triumph 12 months ago was Henderson’s sixth in the prestigious race, finally moving him one ahead of legendary Great Habton trainer Peter Easterby on the all-time list.
And, ominously, the current champion trainer – who already has an unsurpassed 58 Festival wins to his name – believes Buveur D’Air, the current number one and odds-on favourite, is in even better form than 12 months ago. Lightly-raced, the JP McManus-owned runner was barely extended when winning Newcastle’s Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle last December before adding Kempton’s equally prestigious Christmas Hurdle to a burgeoning CV.
A saunter at Sandown is likely to have put the horse spot on for today’s test in which Barry Geraghty, retained by McManus, replaces last year’s winning jockey Noel Fehily in the saddle.
“Buveur D’Air’s greatest asset is his jumping – he is so quick it is frightening. He measures them so precisely – it is like hurdlers in athletics – absolute precision,” said Henderson last night.
“He is just very good at jumping. I think he is improving – he is getting stronger. When he was third in the Supreme Hurdle to Altior at the Festival two years ago, we knew he was a good horse on the way up.”
The champion trainer’s four-strong team also includes My Tent Or Yours, who has been Champion Hurdle runner-up three times, Charli Parcs and Verdana Blue.
Though there have been many multiple winners of the Champion Hurdle, notably Henderson’s fragile See You Then who recorded a hat-trick of wins in the 1980s, there’s been no back-to-back victor since Hardy Eustace’s twin triumphs in 2004 and 2005 for the late Dessie Hughes.
The one unknown, at the start of a week that is likely to see punters gamble £300m, is the rain-softened ground which is likely to be at its most demanding since the 1995 Festival.
Not only does this pose questions about past Festival form – the going has been quite quick in recent years – but it might play to the strengths of 2015 winner Faugheen, the mount of Ruby Walsh, who has laboured at times following a 665-day lay-off.
After a successful comeback in the Grade One Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, he was pulled up in the Ryanair Hurdle over Christmas at Leopardstown before returning to the Dublin track and being unexpectedly denied by Jessica Harrington’s Stayers’ Hurdle contender Supasundae in Ireland’s Champion Hurdle.
He’s trained by Irish racing’s talisman Willie Mullins who, like Henderson, is four-handed as the two training titans go head-to-head in a battle for supremacy that will be one of the week’s most intriguing sub-plots. Only Ireland’s Gordon Elliott looks capable of threatening their dominance.
“Faugheen’s form of November, when he won the Morgiana, shows he still has the talent of old but we’ve been scratching our heads the last two runs, the same as everybody else,” said the trainer’s son and assistant Patrick. “I think the soft ground will help us as it will make it more of a stamina test. It’s hard to expect a big run but at the same time me and Dad are still confident he is better than his last two runs.”
Mullins also runs Wicklow Brave, Melon and the enigmatic Yorkhill who has not shown the form since the season that led to famous triumphs in the 2016 Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle and the JLT Novices Chase last year.
Meanwhile, there’s uncertainty over tomorrow’s anticipated match-up between Mullins and Henderson in the two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Though the former has declared Douvan, last year’s beaten favourite, after some uncertainty, the participation of Henderson’s Altior – last year’s Arkle hero and one of the bankers of the meeting – is in some doubt.
Unbeaten from seven starts over fences, Henderson’s stable star was reported to be lame yesterday morning. “Altior was unfortunately lame in his near-fore leg and we have located some pus in the frog of his foot,” reported the trainer.
“He was still able to exercise in the water treadmill, which he regularly does anyway, and a poultice will now be applied and left on overnight to draw out the pus. Both our vet and farrier are working very hard and are more than hopeful that he will be clear to race on Wednesday.”
Henderson’s ace has missed most of the season after undergoing wind surgery in November.
As the trainer is the first to observe, winning races at Cheltenham is hard enough – getting horses to jump racing’s showcase meeting in tip-top form is even harder.