Henderson Walking On Air With New Champion Record


Nicky Henderson greets Champion Hurdler Buveur d’Air and Barry Geraghty | Emma Berry

By Emma Berry

CHELTENHAM, UK—In the last decade, Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson have dominated the Champion Hurdle, winning four apiece after Henderson’s Buveur d’Air (Fr) (Crillon {Fr}) successfully defended his crown to level the score on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.

The slick hurdler, now unbeaten in his last 10 starts, cruised in the slipstream of his pacemaker Charlie Parcs (Fr) and the 2015 champion Faugheen (Ire) but his second championship title looked far from assured as he was sent on by Barry Geraghty to head the leaders at the second-last flight. Leaping up his inner to challenge for the lead was Melon (GB), one of four runners in the race for Mullins, who pushed the eventual winner all the way up the hill for home, passing the line just a neck behind, with the Gordon Elliott-trained Mick Jazz (Fr) in third.

For Henderson it was a record seventh Champion Hurdle victory—having also won three in a row between 1985-87 with See You Then (GB)—and it was also a seventh win in the race for owner JP McManus, himself associated with another treble winner, the mighty Istabraq (Ire).

“Buveur d’Air had a battle on his hands, probably his first real battle this year,” admitted Henderson. “After his last race at Sandown, we were talking about him not having any really hard races this year, but today was one. Unlike some of his prep races, this was a proper race and he showed his class. He was headed but Barry [Geraghty] 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 added, “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 JP McManus and then we’ll make a decision.”

Though Mullins was narrowly denied in the feature race, he nevertheless stamped his authority on Prestbury Park, winning another two of the day’s four Grade 1 contests, with classy 6-year-old Footpad (Fr) (Creachadoir {Ire}) landing the Racing Post Arkle Trophy and Benie Des Dieux (Fr) (Great Pretender {Ire}) getting the better of Midnight Tour (GB) and red-hot favourite Apple’s Jade (Fr) to giver her trainer his ninth win in just 11 runnings of the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. And just to gild the lily, Mullins later saddled Rathvinden (Ire) Heron Island {Ire}) to win National Hunt Challenge Cup, a four-mile slog for amateur riders, in the hands of his son Patrick.

“The first two days were tough last year, but thankfully things are better this time around and it’s been a fantastic day for us,” said Ireland’s champion jumps trainer.

“Knowing the way Patrick rides given his body language, I knew he had a bit in the tank. I thought Rathvinden would win it a bit easier than he did but Ms Parfois was very tough in second despite not jumping the second-last great, so that was an excellent performance from that mare.”

With a Mullins treble and British-trained winners from four different stables, including Mick Channon’s Flat-orientated West Ilsley yard, the competition between Britain and Ireland was predictably fierce, but on the breeding front it was very much France’s day, with no fewer than four winners having taken their first steps on French soil.

Footpad’s Arkle victory was a breakthrough first success at the Cheltenham Festival for the 2009 G1 Lockinge S. winner Creachadoir (Ire) (King’s Best), the Frank Dunne-bred half-brother to treble Arc runner-up Youmzain (Ire) (Sinndar {Ire}). The siblings both ended up at stud in France—Youmzain at Haras du Quesnay, while Creachadoir started his career at Haras du Logis before moving to Haras de Lonray in 2015.

Footpad, a grandson of G2 Prix de Malleret winner and Oaks third Animatrice (Alleged), hails from a classy family nurtured by the Wertheimers, but it is one which is having an increasing influence in top-class jumping contests.

Animatrice is herself a half-sister to Poliglote (GB), now living out his retirement at Haras d’Etreham, where he served an honourable tenure as the best dual-purpose sire in France in his day, with Arc winner Solemia (GB) and Cheltenham Festival hero Don Poli (Ire) his best horses in respective disciplines. Politologue (Fr) could yet add to his sire’s fine record in today’s G1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Animatrice’s daughter Willamina (Fr) (Sadler’s Wells) could manage just one minor victory in the provinces when trained by Criquette Head-Maarek for the Wertheimer brothers but she is now a broodmare of note as the dam of five-time Grade 1 winner Footpad, as well as four other multiple winners on the Flat and over jumps.

Trainer Robert Collet bought Willamina as an 8-year-old from the Wertheimer draft at Arqana’s December Sale for €145,000, presumably on behalf of his daughters Louise and Camille, who are listed as the co-breeders of Footpad.

Whether it’s Cheltenham or Longchamp, there’s no getting away from Sadler’s Wells and Willamina’s 2011 mating with Creachadoir follows a similar pattern to that which produced last season’s Arc heroine Enable (GB) (Nathaniel {Ire}), who, like Footpad, is inbred 3×2 to Sadler’s Wells.

Willamina’s full-brother Saddler Maker (Ire) had a similarly undistinguished racing career but he too has made his presence felt on the National Hunt scene. Starting his second career in relative obscurity, his small books of mares, sadly curtailed when he died in 2016 at Haras de Cercy, have resulted in a wealth of talent in the jumps ranks. Saddler Maker’s best performers include Bristol De Mai (Fr), Apple’s Jade, who narrowly failed to defend her OLBG Mares’ Hurdle crown on Tuesday, and her full-sister Apple’s Shakira (Fr), who is favourite for Friday’s G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle.


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