THE relief etched across Nicky Henderson’s face was plain to see when dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air returned to winning ways at Sandown.
He was simply pleased that the snow thawed in time for the country’s leading hurdler, owned by JP McManus, to atone for his shock defeat at Kempton on Boxing Day.
This was Buveur D’Air’s third successive win in the Contenders Hurdle. On each of the previous two occasions, the horse has gone on to triumph at Cheltenham.
And while Henderson will be hoping that history repeats itself next month, his stable star could face a formidable champion from Apple’s Jade.
Trained by Gordon Elliott, she put down a marker of her own by winning the Irish Champion Hurdle in some style just 20 minutes before Buveur D’Air prevailed under Barry Geraghty without being seriously tested,
“Apple’s Jade has got to knock us off our perch. She’s very good filly,” said Henderson before expressing his pleasure that his horse did not have a hard race on ground made more testing by snow.
“We all know what happened last time, but the jockey was very happy. It was a muddling old race. He led down the back and then Barry took a pull and let another horse take a lead. I thought he jumped a bit slicker than at Kempton where he made one howler, but I’m not saying that as an excuse.
“I’m very happy as he did need this race and the timing was perfect. I was very nervous when I thought it might be off.
“Barry was very pleased with him and said he felt much better.”
As for Apple’s Jade who runs in the colours of Gigginstown House Stud owned by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and his brother Eddie, their intentions are unlikely to be confirmed until the eve of next month’s National Hunt Festival.
The initial reaction was that Jack Kennedy’s mount will stick to the two and a half mile OLBG.com Mares’ Hurdle where potential winners could include Lady Buttons for Catterick trainer Phil Kirby and owner Jayne Sivills.
However, having slept on the decision and watched the replay again, the aforementioned Elliott suggested that connections do seem to be warming to the idea of a mouth-watering clash with Buveur D’Air on March 12 when Henderson’s hero will bid to become the first horse to win three successive Champion Hurdles since the McManus-owned Istabraq completed the feat in 2000.
“Before yesterday I would have said that the Mares’ Hurdle was the race to go for but she ran in the Mares’ Hurdle last year and got beat,” explained Elliott. “Talking about it last night and looking at the re-runs this morning – I’d prefer to get beat in a Champion Hurdle than a Mares’ Hurdle.
“We’ll all have a view but whatever Michael says will go. Speaking to him this morning, the mare is okay after the race yesterday, we’d be mad not to give it a go.”
He went on: “I watched Buveur D’Air this morning, he’s obviously a very good horse who does what he has to do every day and is a horse I’d love to train but we’ll take him on.
“Up until yesterday I would have been very nervous but to do what she did yesterday was very good, she loves a battle and I think Cheltenham suits her better than Leopardstown.
“Nothing is concrete but I’d say it’s likely to be the Champion Hurdle.”
Vinndication will line up in the three-mile RSA Chase, rather than the shorter JLT, if he lines up at the Cheltenham Festival.
Kim Bailey’s charge lost his unbeaten record in the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown on Saturday when the horse, ridden by David Bass, was beaten a little over three lengths into third by Defi Du Seuill and Lostintranslation.
Without committing completely to the big meeting next month, Bailey did at least confirm there was now only one option for the six-year-old who had previously won over fences at Carlisle and Ascot.
“After yesterday, if we go to Cheltenham, it will be the three-mile race and not the JLT,” said Bailey.
“He is an out-and-out stayer, we’ve always known that but I hoped he had enough speed to stay at the shorter trip for now.
“This was a big learning curve for all of us and he’ll have learned physically and mentally from it, he’ll have come out of it more of a man.”