There would be few more popular winners at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival than the 2015 Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen. Beaten just a single time in fourteen career starts, he showed that the fire still burned bright when an impressive winner of the Morgiana Hurdle in mid November. His three rivals on that occasion were all rated 155 or lower so it was not as if he beat a deep field in the way of quality but the manner in which he despatched them was stunning. He faced his only defeat in that race in 2015 so after a long absence he was fully entitled to need the run. We will know more about his wellbeing if he arrives at Kempton over Christmas but for now he is a short priced favourite and on his old form, rightfully so.
Buveur D’Air is the defending champion, taking full advantage of a relatively weak field to claim the prize. That is not to take away from the achievement, no horse wins a Champion Hurdle by accident, but having been campaigned over fences to kick off the season, it was more an afterthought for him. He won the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle to kick off this go round, tanking his way through the contest but not having to come off the bridle to despatch a weak field at 1/6. Arguably that told us little more than he still has a leg in each corner, the second similarly rated to the foes Faugheen vanquished. He would need to step up plenty on that to cope with a fully fit Faugheen but given the injury problems that horse has had, the top British challenge needs plenty of respect.
A hype horse as a novice, Melon nearly overcame a severe lack of experience in the Supreme in March. That he ran into Labaik on one of his going days shouldn’t be held against him, especially as it was only his second start in the discipline. He jumped slickly there, giving the impression that if connections had managed to get another run into him that the experience could well have turned the placings round. He was a shade disappointing at Punchestown afterwards but kicked off this season with a fluent win at Down Royal. He travelled sweetly there and while that bare form is a long way short of what is going to be required at this level, he is open to more improvement than the majority in here.
One who is similarly unexposed from the same Closutton maestro is Cilaos Emery who got the better of Melon at Punchestown in the spring. Ridden with a little more restraint there than he was at Cheltenham, he does look like a horse who would benefit from a contest run at Championship pace. He ran over two and a half miles on his seasonal debut, only beaten eleven lengths by the race fit Apples’s Jade. Nine lengths behind Stayers Hurdle winner Nichols Canyon who was also making his seasonal return, he is the horse to rate the effort through. With no championship hurdle at that trip at the Festival, it would be no surprise to see him back to two miles for the opening day feature.
The last five year old to claim the Champion Hurdle crown was Katchit in 2008, himself the first since See You Then in 1985. It was always going to be a tough season therefore for Defi Du Seuil, for all that he was head and shoulders above the rest of the juvenile division last campaign. It was no great surprise to see him turned over on his return given a small field and a step up in trip at Ascot, the latter especially seeming to find him out. He travelled sweetly through the contest but looks in need of a step back to a bare two miles to get his head back in front. While he would need a massive step forward to win a Champion Hurdle, in a year where the field lacks depth, he is a big each way price despite the recent reverse.
Wicklow Brave doesn’t always produce his best, but when he does he tends to do it at the ideal time. A Grade 1 winner on both the flat and over hurdles, he was the winner of the Punchestown Champion Hurdle in April. He has shown the other side of his character at the Cheltenham Festival when briefly looking as if he might plant himself at the start of the Champion Hurdle. Coaxed into jumping off with the rest of the field, he ran well in seventh, beaten a little over fourteen lengths. He would likely not have been better than fourth or fifth if he had been on his best behaviour, but in a similarly weak renewal this time around, he may sneak a place if on a going day.
The Cheltenham hill has been the thorn in the side of My Tent Or Yours on four occasions now at the Festival, run out of things late on in a Supreme and in three Champion Hurdles. It is still an incredible achievement and a testament to the skill of trainer Nicky Henderson that he has got the horse to the track to contest this race on numerous occasions given his problems. He would be an eleven-year-old if he made it back for another tilt at the prize in March and although it is impossible to consider him winning it at an advanced age, another place to add to his collection can be considered.