TRAINER Nicky Henderson recorded his 59th victory at the Cheltenham Festival following a record seventh success in the Unibet Champion Hurdle following Buveur D'Air's game win in the two-mile championship contest.
The first back-to-back winner of the hurdling highlight since Hardy Eustace in 2004 and 2005, Buveur D'Air, the 4/6 favourite was always prominent under Barry Geraghty and despite being headed by the Willie Mullins-trained Melon (7/1), the seven-year-old son of Crillon rallied tenaciously under Geraghty to win by a neck in a thrilling finish.
The Gordon Elliott-trained Mick Jazz (25/1) was three lengths further back in third; the first three clear.
Buveur D'Air does it again, winning the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy for the second year in a row and and provides @sevenbarrows with his seventh win in the race#TheFestival pic.twitter.com/RbomnQHaTs— CheltenhamRacecourse (@CheltenhamRaces) March 13, 2018
A delighted Henderson said: "It was a brilliant race. They went a good gallop throughout and Buveur D'Air and Melon were able to then keep that gallop up in the closing stages, it was a great contest to keep that up the whole way.
"They were two very brave horses, with two brave jockeys. I think he did get headed but Barry said he was never worried as he thought he would always get there.
"Unlike some of his prep races, this was a proper race and he showed his class. He was headed but Barry was always happy. It was a proper race and Melon is a good horse, but Buveur D'Air just put his head down and battled.
"He didn't blow up, but he had a blow afterwards. He is a really good young horse, he did what he had to today. There's always pressure when you are trying to win these big races, so it's a big relief and it gives us confidence going into the week.
"We have four weeks until Aintree, so we could go back there again if there is soft ground in the going description. I'll speak to J.P. McManus and then we'll make a decision."
Winning owner J.P. McManus was also winning his seventh Champion Hurdle along with his 53rd Cheltenham Festival success and he was equally delighted.
McManus said: "I'm keeping up with Nicky! I'm thrilled as Barry missed out last year and whilst Noel gave him a great ride last year, it was nice that Barry was involved and got to share in it and enjoy it.''
Buveur D'Air Barry Geraghty after winning the Unibet Champion Hurdle
Geraghty missed the 2017 Festival after puncturing a lung and breaking six ribs in a fall at Kempton at the end of February.
"It was a long year last year, but it's been a great year this time and I can't complain," the jockey reported. "Coming here, you are banking on a winner. Bad luck was the only thing that was going to beat him [Buveur D'Air], and he didn't get bad luck and he won. It's great to get a winner - I missed last season and it's great to get a big winner for your boss."
Geraghty and Buveur D'Air beat the Willie Mullins-trained Melon, a 7/1 chance, by a neck. It was Geraghty's third Champion Hurdle winner [after Punjabi and Jezki] and his 35th Festival victory in total. He said: "I was concerned after they turned in, but the further up the straight I was going, the happier I was going, and I knew I could let Buveur D'Air pop the last and fill up in the process.
"There was nowhere to hide. The ground made it the ultimate test. The best horse was going to win, and thankfully I was on the best horse. He's proved he is very good - you don't win these back-to-back unless you are very good, and he's won everything all season.''
"It is real winter conditions and very tacky down the back straight. Buveur D'Air won it the hard way. I was trying to save as much as I could off the turn in and then go for him as late as possible. He found what was needed. I missed one [hurdle] down the back, which I did not expect. It was a proper race and the runner-up put it up. I thought he was coming to beat me, but my fella is battle-hardened and tough as nails.
"I think he proved there that he is a better horse than last year. He really dug deep and was a scrapper today."
FROM ISTABRAQ TO BUVEUR WITH J.P.
J.P. McManus looked back fondly on seven Champion Hurdle victories when reflecting on Buveur D'Air's success.
Three wins for Istabraq, one each for Binocular and Jezki, and now two on the trot for Buveur D'Air are among highlights of the owner's 53 winners at the meeting.
McManus said: "That was fun! It was good to see Barry and Paul battling it out. Paul has enormous strength, but Barry held on - they are two great jockeys and both looked very strong in the finish. I was worrying for a while, and I knew we had a battle on our hands
"I thought we would need a good one [going to the last hurdle] and I felt the other fella got away from it quicker. Melon maybe went a neck up on us, and I was glad to have Barry on my side.
"Buveur D'Air is just about the best around. He beat Melon by a neck and there was not a lot between them today - but enough, which counts! Last year we came here more in hope, and this time there were expectations, although I was worried about the ground. It's not all horses that can act well on this soft to heavy going.
"I have had many a battle on the racecourse with Joe Donnelly, the owner of Melon [who finished second] - he was a bookmaker, I was a punter and half a bookmaker, and at the time they felt more important than this winner today.
Melon, who started a 7/1 chance, delighted Willie Mullins his trainer with his close second place finish.
"It was a terrific performance from him." Mullins said "at least it vindicated what we thought of him. He just did not face the hood on his previous start. I think he is a horse who is going to improve. He will be better next year.
"I am not too worried about the ground, there are plenty of horses who will improve with better ground.
"Probably we will keep him hurdling rather than chasing but we will make those decisions later in the season. We may go for the Aintree hurdle with him but my preference normally would be Punchestown.''
Mullins also trained the 4/1 chance Faugheen who came home in sixth and Yorkhill (PU), commented: "Faugheen just wants a trip at this stage of his career. Ruby got off him and said he just wants a longer trip nowadays.
"I may send him over a longer trip at Punchestown or maybe look at the race in Aintree.
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