Trainer Nicky Henderson revealed today at a media stable visit to his Seven Barrows yard north of Lambourn that champion hurdler Buveur D'Air had run at least 10lb below his best when winning the G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last year on the first day, Champion Day, of The Festival™ presented by Magners.
Henderson, hosting a Cheltenham Racecourse-organised media visit before The Festival 2019 next month, said: "He won it last year with a certain amount of ability and quite a lot of guts as well."
He reported: "Buveur is in good form and I am happy with him. I don't think he was at his best in last year's Champion Hurdle. I will tell you for why.
"He lived in a box next door to We Have A Dream who had a temperature, which was absolutely screaming, on the Monday morning before Cheltenham (the Unibet Champion Hurdle takes place at 3.30pm on the Tuesday) and they lived absolutely nose to nose.
"We took We Have Dream, who had not touched his food, out of that box. Buveur D'Air is as tough as teak and he did not get over Cheltenham at all last year. He couldn't even go back to Aintree which he had done the year before, which should have been a piece of cake for him.
"He wasn't impressive in the Champion Hurdle and the race took him apart - races don't usually affect him - but on that occasion after Cheltenham, he hadn't even recovered four weeks afterwards to go anywhere near Aintree. I think you have to take it that he had been affected by We Have A Dream having a temperature last year. It gave us a scare."
The eight-year-old son of Crillon recorded a game success in last year's Unibet Champion Hurdle at Prestbury Park, defeating the Willie Mullins-trained Melon by a neck, following an impressive victory, by four and a half lengths, in the two-mile hurdling championship in 2017.
Victorious in the G1 Unibet Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle and the Listed Contenders Hurdle at Sandown Park this season, Buveur D'Air suffered a shock defeat in the G1 Unibet Christmas Hurdle, beaten a short-head by stable companion Verdana Blue at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
Henderson said: "This season, I think with two miles on fast ground at Kempton we got caught out a little bit, and Verdana Blue had a lovely run round in his slipstream and she has a serious turn of foot.
"Barry (Geraghty, rider) said Buveur D'Air was fantastic at Newcastle, while Sandown Park was great for him to get another victory - you have to keep working him so that is what we will do."
Buveur D'Air could be joined in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, worth £450,000, by two stable companions, his Christmas Hurdle conqueror Verdana Blue plus Brain Power, who captured the G2 Unibet International Hurdle at Cheltenham on his latest start in December.
"Verdana Blue has been very unlucky with the equine flu outbreak as we wanted to run her in the Fast-Track Qualifier for the All-Weather Championships at Kempton on Saturday, but couldn't because she needed to be vaccinated.
"That would have been her prep-race for Cheltenham and it would have also got her a run in the £150,000 Betway All-Weather Marathon at Lingfield Park on Good Friday (All-Weather Championships Finals Day, April 19) if she had won, so that was really bad luck.
"She will run at Cheltenham, but decent ground is essential for her. We know Simon [Claisse, Clerk of the Course] would like to get the ground to be good to soft on the first day of The Festival. If it was any softer, then she would be a doubtful runner.
"Brain Power will also run in the Champion Hurdle. He was very good at Cheltenham. That is the way to ride him and he likes good ground. He is in great form and I would like to go for a racecourse gallop with him. I know the International was not one of the strongest renewals, but it was one of the better British races. Brain Power and Verdana Blue would be towards the top of the English pile.
"The opposition appears to be in Ireland with Apple's Jade, who looked very good, and it will be very interesting to see Laurina who runs this week. I imagine they are the two of note from Ireland, along with Melon. We just have to worry about what we're doing and not what everybody else is up to.
"Buveur D'Air will have to be better than he was last year as this year's Champion Hurdle is a better renewal. I still think he is the one to beat - I hope he is 10lb better than last year."
Altior is bidding for a fourth successive victory at The Festival™ presented by Magners following wins in the G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (2016), G1 Racing Post Arkle (2017) and last year's G1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, a race he once again is being targeted at.
The nine-year-old son of High Chaparral is bidding to emulate the great Big Buck's' record of 18 straight victories over obstacles if he lands the £400,000 G1 contest and Henderson has been delighted with Altior's performances this season.
A four-length winner of the G1 Betfair Tingle Creek Chase on soft ground at Sandown in December, Patricia Pugh's gelding has since plundered both the G2 Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton and the G1 Clarence House Chase at Ascot.
Altior will seek to follow in the footsteps of the wonderful Sprinter Sacre, who was also a dual-winner of the two-mile chase showpiece for the Seven Barrows handler.
Henderson said: "Everything has gone very good so far with Altior.
"He hasn't put a foot wrong, well you might tell me he jumped to the left at Ascot, but we've been delighted with him.
"We came up with a different strategy for him this year, he has had a nice break since Ascot and he is coming into Cheltenham nice and fresh which will hopefully mean we can go on again with him after Cheltenham.
"Altior looks super, he will work tomorrow and then have a couple of schools because he enjoys it - he is in good shape.
"With Altior, we're back in the Sprinter Sacre situation of people expecting him to win. Anything bar a really good performance won't do. Lots of things can happen and while the odd horse may go to the Ryanair Chase instead of taking him on plenty will still run against him, including Min potentially who we know we can beat, but is a good horse.
"There will be plenty of opposition and plenty of fences in the way. He has been round Cheltenham before of course and whilst it would be disappointing if things went wrong at Cheltenham, you have to be prepared for the fact that it has to go wrong one day. I know Winx can go on winning, but she is different - amazing.
"Altior is a very good horse and I know he hasn't always met a great deal of opposition even in G1s and G2s, but he has to do what he's got to do.
"I just hope things don't go wrong in the Champion Chase as that is the race you really prepare him for all year. Patricia Pugh [owner] and I have discussed the King George and if everything did go right this season, then we would probably branch out and try something completely different next season and then probably get him beaten.
"If we could stay unbeaten at the moment that would be great. Altior is not quite the showman that Sprinter Sacre was. He is a very good looking horse, Might Bite is the new showman really, gorgeous and big with loads of sex appeal.
"Altior is a proper machine who gets on with it - he has tremendous pace and, touch wood, his jumping is pretty accurate and he has a lot of gears. If Altior was a Flat horse, he would be a very good mile and a quarter or mile and a half horse - a Group horse - but we're not going to do that I can assure you!"
Might Bite finished second to the Colin Tizzard-trained Native River in a thrilling renewal of the G1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup last term, but the 10-year-old son of Scorpion has struggled to scale the same heights in two starts this season, finishing last of the five runners in the G1 Betfair Chase at Haydock Park in November, before seventh in the G1 King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day. Not seen since, the 2017 RSA Chase hero has undergone a wind operation and Henderson has been pleased with his work since.
Discussing the chaser, Henderson revealed: "We have done lots of things with Might Bite. We have recauterised his palate. Two years ago, he had a hobday and when you do a hobday, you do a soft palate with it. You cannot redo a hobday, but the soft palate part very often needs to be redone. A lot of horses have had the surgery done a few times - it can last about three runs and then you have to do it again.
"I haven't got reason to think that he needed redoing as you can often not hear a noise and you can't see it on a scope. We have recauterised Might Bite and it just probably helps tighten him up - that has happened since Kempton.
"We have freshened him up and Nico [De Boinville, jockey] rode him on Saturday and thought he was in terrific form. If it was good ground in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, which it would need to be, then hopefully he would run well.
"He did well in the Gold Cup last year on soft ground. They had a fantastic strip of ground at Cheltenham last year for the Gold Cup which had not been touched for nearly a year. Native River and Might Bite went round the whole way on that together. They never came off that ground until after jumping the last fence where the run-in was the wettest part of the track.
"When you jump the last fence in the Gold Cup, you have to runs across Tuesday and Wednesday's Hurdle track, Tuesday and Wednesday's Chase course, Thursday's Hurdle and Chase and all the three hurdle races you've had on the Friday, which is quite a long strip isn't it?
"Might Bite jumped the last fence and they had been on remarkably good ground before that, but when he hit the softer ground, he just got tired. I might have made a mistake last year by not running him after the King George and I might have done the same thing again last year, but I've had no option but to stop and start again following the flu outbreak.
"I am not surprised that Might Bite is a 20/1 shot this year - he is entitled to be bearing in mind what he has achieved this year. He doesn't know what price he is and we just have to get there as best we can. I was thrilled with what I saw from him on Saturday - he was very good. I am hopeful about the rest of the season with him. His last two runs have been disappointing."
Santini has long been earmarked as a potential Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup contender of the future and he takes the next step on the road to stardom in the £175,000 G1 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase (Wednesday, March 13) at The Festival™ presented by Magners.
An impressive winner of a G2 contest at Newbury on his chase debut in December, the seven-year-old son of Milan finished an eye-catching third on his latest start in the G1 Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
Discussing his preparation for The Festival 2019, Henderson explained: "I need Santini to have a racecourse gallop. I would like to get him to jump some fences if I can as another run would have done him the world of good, despite him having a lot of experience over hurdles.
"I was very pleased with his run at Kempton and I tend to agree with the assumption that most people concluded which was that he was the horse to take out of the Kauto Star Novices' Chase and will be the one to beat in the RSA.
"Cheltenham will clearly suit him much better than Kempton, but that doesn't mean he will necessarily reverse the form with the second [Topofthegame]. I would have loved to have run him in the Renyoldstown last weekend at Ascot as he really needed it. We will do plenty of schooling and away we go."
On The Blind Side recorded a comfortable success at Kempton on his second start over fences and could join Santini in the RSA Insurance Novices' Chase, but Henderson warned: "I need to get a run into On The Blind Side who would be a candidate for the RSA Chase, but he needs another run and there is nowhere to go."
Henderson also boasts an enviable team in the novice hurdle division. Impressive Ascot scorer Angels Breath and G2 Sky Bet Supreme Trial Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle winner Mister Fisher spearhead a twin assault on the opening race of the meeting, the G1 £125,000 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Champ, owned by J P McManus and named after 20-time champion Jump jockey Sir Anthony McCoy looks set to be the stable's chief hope in the £125,000 G1 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Wednesday, March 13) following a convincing victory in the G1 Challow Novices' Hurdle at Newbury in December and could be joined by the unbeaten Champagne Platinum, who also runs in the green and gold hoops of McManus.
Birchdale, another McManus-owned inmate, captured a G2 contest at Cheltenham over two miles and four furlongs on Festival Trials Day (January 26) and is set to step up in distance for the £125,000 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Friday, March 15) at The Festival™ presented by Magners, along with stable companion Dickie Diver, who runs at Chepstow on Saturday.
Discussing his novice hurdling squad, Henderson commented: "I would like to get another run into Angels Breath as he has only jumped four hurdles in public. He has a host of options this weekend. He will run in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle along with Mister Fisher.
"Champ will run in the Ballymore, whilst Birchdale and Dickie Diver will probably go for the Albert Bartlett. Barry Geraghty [J P McManus' retained rider] doesn't think that's right, but I do.
"Champ has been very good and has plenty of experience. Birchdale is good and he did well to win the other day because he was very green at Cheltenham and I think he learnt enough there.
"Champagne Platinum is another horse who could go for the Ballymore and Dickie Diver, who runs at Chepstow this weekend could go for the Albert Bartlett as we are trying to spread them around. I think our novice hurdlers are a particularly strong bunch."
OK Corral shot to the top of the betting for the £125,000 G2 National Hunt Chase (Tuesday, March 12) following a striking win in a Listed contest at Warwick over three miles in January under top amateur Mr Derek O'Connor. That race remains the plan for the J P McManus-owned nine-year-old despite Henderson revealing slight reservations about the extended trip.
He continued: "OK Corral runs in the National Hunt Chase, although I must admit at Warwick, it did not look as if he was desperate for it.
"I am sure if you asked Derek O'Connor if he wants four miles, I think I know what he is going to tell you. He wants all of three miles, so hopefully he will stay four! The last two seasons with OK Corral, he has managed to get through both seasons after extended periods off the track.
"He is an old horse (nine) to be going novice chasing, but he looked very good at Warwick. He travelled so well and has the best man riding him in Derek and that is why he rode him at Warwick, because we had a plan. OK Corral has created a consistent portfolio with some of his recent successes, but it has become a better race, so he will need to be on top of his game if he is to have any chance of winning.
Henderson could be double-handed in the £350,000 G1 Ryanair Chase (St Patrick's Thursday, March 14) courtesy of recent Listed winner Top Notch and Terrefort, a creditable second to Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup candidate Clan Des Obeaux in Saturday's G2 Betfair Denman Chase at Ascot.
Discussing the duo, Henderson continued: "Top Notch and Terrefort will most likely both run in the Ryanair. Top Notch would have run in the Ascot Chase, but he couldn't because he was vaccinated in the week and I can't say he would have beaten Cyrname who was very impressive, so he now goes straight to the Ryanair.
"Top Notch is probably just 5lb short of being a proper G1 horse. He is in good form and we'll see what happens as he did it really well at Kempton. He has to be on the shortlist of horses we are looking forward to. Terrefort had a good blow on Saturday at Ascot and I was impressed with the winner who put us in our place. The Gold Cup is probably not the right place for Terrefort so I think the Ryanair is the target."
Other horses mentioned by Henderson included Epatante, who could run in the £90,000 G2 Dawn Run Mares' Novice Hurdle (St Patrick's Thursday, March 14).
Henderson has been unable to run a number of horses following a new BHA ruling imposed following the equine flu outbreak last week, which states that horses who have not been vaccinated in the last six months, must be vaccinated before running again.
Detailing the size of his team for The Festival, Henderson said: "We won't have an overly big team, but it is the most important four days of the year. We will have a lovely team and the novice hurdlers are really good and it means that I have to go on training as they will be at their best in four or five years' time.
"The main thing is to try and get one winner on the first day and then you can enjoy it. Once you have one winner, you can have more, but it is all about getting one on the board. It's a bit like going out to bat, if you hit a four in the first over, you're off and running, aren't you.
"Our job is to make sure all our horses get there in one piece. They all have their own mountains to climb and we just need to ensure they get there as fit as we can get them as they are coming in off a very bizarre preparation, but everybody is working their socks off and doing their best."
Unibet are the official sponsors of the Seven Barrows Yard and their representative Ed Nicholson said: "It's great to see the strength-in-depth which Nicky Henderson has ahead of this year's meeting.
"Altior is a top-price 4/9 with us for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, whilst Buveur D'Air is 2/1 favourite for the Unibet Champion Hurdle and Santini is 3/1 for the RSA Chase.
"Might Bite is 20/1 for the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup and Nicky Henderson reported him to be in good form this morning, so maybe he is the one to take away from today."