Buveur d'Air, Altior and Native River back to defend Cheltenham crowns


Cheltenham (United Kingdom) (AFP)

The Cheltenham Festival starts on Tuesday, AFP Sport assesses the four-day National Hunt meeting's championship races:

Tuesday - Champion Hurdle

Buveur d'Air aims to join a select group of six three-time winners of the hurdling crown, including See You Then, trained like the 2017 and 2018 champion by Nicky Henderson. Battled to a neck win over Melon 12 months ago. Henderson also runs Verana Blue, who toppled Buveur d'Air at Kempton over Christmas, and Brain Power. Main danger though comes from Apple Jade, who is aided by her 7lb mares weight allowance. Gordon Elliott's popular hurlder lines up at the top of her game after running her rivals ragged in the Irish Champion Hurdle last month. Laurina, representing Melon's trainer Willie Mullins, arrives in the Cotswolds as an up and coming force, she won at the festival 12 months ago, and should be suited by the conditions.

Wednesday - Champion Chase

Strong winds are forecast at the track on Wednesday but nothing looks like blowing Altior's chances away. Irrespective of Henderson's fate in the big one on Tuesday it is hard not to see him leading Altior into the winner's enclosure as the first back-to-back winner of the two mile chasing showpiece in a decade. Altior has been imperious in this division, as his cramped ante-post odds indicate. His silky jumping and high cruising speed make him impossible to oppose as he seeks to extend his unbeaten run over fences to 18. Last year's runner-up Min once again may play second fiddle to the king.

Friday - Gold Cup

For Willie Mullins the Gold Cup has proved maddingly elusive. His failure to nail the National Hunt blue riband has become in his words "a thing". The powerful Irish handler's best chance of finally breaking his hoodoo could be Kemboy. He won the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, is improving, and should have the engine to cope with this untested longer trip. Defending champion Native River has been placed on his two starts this year in races that failed to play on his deep reserves of stamina that saw him dig deep to deny Henderson's favourite Might Bite 12 months ago. A front runner he will have his ideal going to defend his title. King George VI Chase winner Clan des Obeaux holds obvious claims, but is is Presenting Percy who just shades this pair in the ante-post betting. The Irish contender has had an unorthodox preparation, a sole outing over hurdles, but his trainer Pat Kelly has produced him pitch perfect to win here at the last two Festivals and can be counted on to do so again for this first appearance in such exalted company.