Champion Hurdle – Hurricane Fly vs Buveur d’Air
Hurricane Fly became the first progeny of Montjeu to win at the Cheltenham Festival when winning the 2011 Champion Hurdle, one of the strongest renewals for several years, with the first two home running to a level good enough to win seven of the previous eight runnings. The pace wasn’t as strong as might have been expected, the tempo slower than the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle run over the same C&D earlier on the card, and it was Hurricane Fly’s slick jumping and customary turn of foot that made the difference. In terms of performance, Hurricane Fly produced one of the best performances in the race since the days of Istabraq, running to a Timeform rating of 171.
He could only finish third in his follow-up bid 12 months later, but became only the second horse to regain the Champion Hurdle – Comedy of Errors in 1975 the only other horse to do so – when reversing the form with Rock On Ruby in 2013. Hurricane Fly didn’t need to be at his best, but his strong-travelling style and accurate jumping was again evident, still going strongly entering the straight and responding well on the run-in.
5⃣ weeks to go until *that* roar on Day One: Champion Day 😱— CheltenhamRacecourse (@CheltenhamRaces) February 5, 2019
Let's throw it back to the extraordinary Hurricane Fly in 2013 winning his second Champion Hurdle
Who has been your favourite @unibet Champion Hurdle winner of all time? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/sjF74dkaht
Buveur d’Air is another two-time winner of the Champion Hurdle, but unlike Hurricane Fly, perhaps hasn’t received the praise he should have for both of his victories. The absence of the last two winners of this race, Annie Power and Faugheen, had led to much talk about the 2017 running being a sub-standard renewal, and perhaps overall it was, but in Buveur d'Air it had a winner whose performance was well up to the recent standard for the race. He ran to a Timeform rating of 166, 5 lb inferior to that of Hurricane Fly’s peak effort, but he was impressive on the day, proving much too strong for his older stablemate My Tent Or Yours. Just like Hurricane Fly, his strong-travelling nature and efficient jumping was a key factor to his success, though his stamina also came into play, the race run at a strong pace early leading to a slower finish than the Supreme earlier on the card.
The latest running was hardly a vintage renewal, and just like Hurricane Fly, Buveur d’Air didn’t need to be at his best to record a second win in the race, maintaining his winning sequence in grittier fashion than had become the norm. The softer ground at this level was perhaps not to his liking, and the lack of a serious race in the build up another possible reason, but in performance terms, he ran to the same level as the previous year. Of course, Buveur d’Air is going for a third Champion Hurdle win at the Cheltenham Festival this year, a feat which hasn’t been achieved since Istabraq in 2000.
Champion Chase – Sprinter Sacre vs Altior
A peak Sprinter Sacre was nothing short of a phenomenon, and his victory in the 2013 Champion Chase was one of the greatest performances in National Hunt history. In the run up to the 2013 Cheltenham Festival, all the hype was around Sprinter Sacre, and he duly delivered, annihilating a high-class field of previous graded winners, beating the 2011 winner Sizing Europe by 19 lengths. He had already shown himself as an outstanding chaser, but this immense performance took his form and standing to a whole new level, producing the highest Timeform rating over jumps – 191 – in the modern era, narrowly exceeding Kauto Star's wide-margin King George win in 2009; only Arkle and Flyingbolt have ever achieved more .
An irregular heartbeat plagued his career in the following years, but Nicky Henderson produced one of the training performances of the century when Sprinter Sacre recorded his second win in the Champion Chase in 2016. Sprinter Sacre lowered the colours of the much-vaunted Un de Sceaux, and while in terms of form, it was a good rather than vintage renewal, Sprinter Sacre running to a level 22 lb inferior to his breath taking 2013 victory. However, it was testament to his ability that he was still able to produce a top-class effort on the biggest stage as a ten-year-old.
If there is any horse around at the minute who could reach the level of a peak Sprinter Sacre then it is Altior, who has proven himself the best two-miler chaser around over the last two years. Last season’s Champion Chase promised to be one of the highlights of the whole National Hunt season, and it didn’t disappoint, Altior powering away from a top-class rival in Min, gaining a third successive win at the Cheltenham Festival after victories in the Supreme and Arkle. The race would have been even better had Douvan completed, still tanking along when departing, but he would have had to be at least as good as ever to beat Altior. The performance of Altior was some way short of Sprinter Sacre’s demolition job in 2013, Altior running to a Timeform rating of 179, but Altior still retains the Timeform small ‘p’ heading into this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
Gold Cup – Kauto Star vs Native River
Kauto Star became the latest two-time winner of the Gold Cup when regaining his crown from stablemate Denman in 2009, and it was one of the best renewals of the race for many a year, Kauto Star producing an outstanding performance, arguably the best in the race since the days of Arkle. He was much improved from his victory in 2007, running to a Timeform rating of 181, a performance supported by a good field in behind him – the third-placed Exotic Dancer running to a level good enough to win several recent runnings beforehand. Kauto Star laid to rest any questions raised by his defeat 12 months earlier, ending once and for all any doubt about his place among the greats. He travelled superbly well (always handy), jumping well throughout, and quickening clear of Denman off the home turn having taken over the running after three out, running on strongly and kept up to his work on the run-in.
One week to go until Gold Cup Day! 🏆— CheltenhamRacecourse (@CheltenhamRaces) March 9, 2018
Remember when Kauto Star became the first horse to regain his Gold Cup title in 2009.
What is your favourite Gold Cup memory? #TheFestival #IllBeThere pic.twitter.com/z5y1ZuduUE
Fast forward nine years, and another duel in the Cheltenham Gold Cup took place, Native River digging deep into his stamina reserves to defeat Might Bite in what was a most exciting renewal. The 2018 renewal of National Hunt racing's most prestigious contest may not have had the same pre-race draw or quite the same level of quality, but it did develop into an enthralling showdown between two of the market leaders, fantastic viewing as Native River and Might Bite went head-to-head from the outset, neither putting a foot wrong and piling the pressure on the chasing pack a long way out.
Native River had a different preparation for last year’s running, arriving a fresher horse than 12 months earlier – when finishing third to Sizing John – probably a help, his small-field win in the Denman Chase at Newbury the month before the ideal stepping stone to get him here all guns blazing for a career-best performance, running to a Timeform rating of 172. Conditions were a factor too, bringing his stamina into play more than on good ground the year before. Forcing the pace, he jumped boldly and immediately fought back when headed narrowly two out, and in front again jumping the last, edging right but finding plenty up the hill, outstaying Might Bite. This gave trainer Colin Tizzard a first Gold Cup win and Champion Jockey Richard Johnson a second 18 years after Looks Like Trouble and, for all Native River is a totally different type to Kauto Star, the demands of the Gold Cup are right up his street; he should make another bold bid to defend his crown.