This article was originally written prior to the tragic news of the death of Espoir D’Allen. I toyed with the idea with rewriting the discussion surrounding him as the reigning champion, but eventually decided that the best tribute I could pay to him would be to leave the section that sings his praises exactly as it was.
His death is a huge loss to JP McManus, Gavin Cromwell and the sport as a whole. We may never know exactly just how good he was, but we certainly hadn’t yet seen the ceiling of his ability.
Unfortunately, there’s little to talk about regarding the potential title defence of the reigning champion, Espoir D’Allen, who was ruled out for the season last week after suffering an injury at Gavin Cromwell’s yard. The 5-year-old went under the radar in the lead up to Cheltenham, and I still don’t think he’s got anywhere near the credit he’s deserved for what was a merciless performance.
In my opinion, too much of the chat following last season’s renewal focused on the things that went wrong for Apple’s Jade, Laurina and Buveur D’Air, and not enough was made of the ease with which Espoir D’Allen dispatched Melon by 15 lengths.
That was as easy of a victory you’d be likely to see at Championship level, and the sky could be the limit for JP McManus’ young superstar.
It’s a real shame we won’t be seeing him at all next season- here’s hoping for a full recovery in time for him to have another crack at the Championship in 2021!
Surely the most obvious candidate from the rest of last season’s senior hurdling brigade is the two-time Buveur D’Air, currently a general 6-1 shot to redeem himself after a mixed campaign last year.
After looking utterly imperious when brushing aside 2018’s leading novices Samcro and Summerville Boy in the Fighting Fifth, Buveur D’Air’s crown slipped slightly when defeated by stablemate Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle, and then fell completely, just as he did, when going for a historical treble at Prestbury Park, though victory on his final start at Punchestown went a way to ensuring his season wasn’t completely derailed.
Buveur D’Air’s deadliest asset, his low but lightning-fast jumping, has always left little margin for error, and even ignoring his Cheltenham catastrophe, there were several other occasions last season where he followed a sublime leap with a sloppy one.
Nevertheless, it’s a fairly small chink in what is, overall, a strong suit of armour. He’s never been out of the first three in sixteen completed starts over hurdles, including 8 Grade One victories, and managed to put together a winning streak spanning over two and a half years.
Genuine excuses can be made for both of Buveur D’Air’s defeats when standing last season- outspeeded at Kempton, outstayed at Aintree- and he is a bona-fide Grade One horse, something which this division doesn’t particularly have too many of. He sets a good benchmark, though last season’s crop of novices, whom I’ll discuss later, may be a level above those that have come through the ranks to face him over the two seasons prior.
Of the other senior hurdlers, Melon, runner up in the last two Champion Hurdles, has peaked at the Festival for each of the last three seasons, but is exposed as a level or two below top class and has a record of 0-11 in Grade Ones. He’ll probably take his chance again, but the race would surely have to fall apart if he was to make it third time lucky.
I thought Laurina’s fourth in last season’s Champion Hurdle was a career best and she remains a smashing prospect, though her future looks likelier to lie over fences and she currently heads the betting for the Arkle, whilst Benie Des Dieux and Apple’s Jade would also appear likelier to tackle other targets than this- Apple’s Jade in particular would have to leave behind a less than impressive Festival record compared to her form at other venues.
The New Faces
At the time of writing, last season’s Supreme Novices’ hero Klassical Dream heads the betting across the boards at a general 3-1.
Unbeaten in four starts since joining Willie Mullins from France, three of which came in Grade 1s, the son of Dream Well has looked a tremendously straightforward and polished operator since joining Closutton and shouldn’t have too much, if any, improvement to do in order to establish himself as the leading two-mile hurdler in Ireland.
He’s a strong traveller and had almost all his rivals in the Supreme in bother before they turned for home, including Thomas Darby, who is the horse I’m most excited about seeing back out next season, whilst it only took him a number of strides to breeze past Aintree Grade One winner Felix Desjy at Punchestown. With the likelihood of Klassical Dream doing all of his racing in Ireland until March, the prospect of him meeting Buveur D’Air for the first time in the Champion Hurdle itself is something to savour.
His position at the top of the market is fully justified, though if Buveur D’Air has a good season in the run up to Cheltenham, surely there won’t be too much too difference between Klassical Dream’s price now and his potential price in six months time.
There’s also the small matter of two Grade One winning juveniles, Pentland Hills and Fusil Raffles, who will both be stepping up into open company next season.
The duo are unbeaten since joining Nicky Henderson, and there’s a nice contrast between the backgrounds of the two horses; Fusil Raffles is a prodigious talent from the famed French academy of Guillaime Macaire and now represents a pair of powerhouse owners, whilst Pentland Hills was only rated 65 on the flat for Chris Wall this time last year, was only second pick in the market when winning a maiden hurdle at Plumpton in late February and is part owned by 3000 racing fans as part of the brilliant Owners Group syndicate.
Surprisingly, it’s the least “sexy” of the pair, Pentland Hills, who is shorter in the betting at a general 10-1 to win the Championship. His Triumph win helped Nico De Boinville to a first Leading Festival Jockey title, although arguably his best performance came at Aintree when showing a likeable attitude to battle past a strong rival in Fakir D’Oudairies, who himself is 25-1 for top honours next March.
Fusil Raffles missed Cheltenham after picking up a minor injury when winning the Adonis impressively and then Fakir D’Oudairies beaten by further than Pentland Hills did at Aintree, so I’m not too sure as to why he’s four points bigger in the market at 14-1; certainly if you were base them both solely on profile alone Fusil Raffles’ ceiling would appear to be higher than that of a formerly exposed flat handicapper.
Despite Espoir D’Allen bucking the trend earlier this year, it bears repeating how much of a huge ask it can often be for a five year old to win a Champion Hurdle, though that appears to be factored into the prices of both Pentland Hills and Fusil Raffles.
That being said, having two unbeaten juveniles and an unbeaten champion novice gunning for the title alongside a former champion on the hunt for redemption could lead to some mouthwatering clashes throughout the season. It might be not have too much depth of quality, but the two-mile hurdling division certainly won’t lack for fascinating storylines.