Nicky Henderson feels Buveur D'Air 'has to be better than last year' if he is going to win a third straight Champion Hurdle crown at the Cheltenham Festival.
The JP McManus-owned star held off Melon to prevail last March but Britain's champion trainer suspects the challenge coming from Ireland this time around is going to be even stronger, with particular attention being paid to the mare's, Apple's Jade and Laurina, for Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins respectively.
Buveur D'Air was most impressive in dismissing Samcro to win the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle on his reappearance before surprisingly being beaten by stablemate Verdana Blue in Kempton's Christmas Hurdle.
I do think he has to pull out more. He has to be better than last year, because I think it is a better race than last year.Nicky Henderson
He has since landed the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown in straightforward fashion and is 9/4 to retain his crown at Cheltenham on 12th March. His Seven Barrows handler feels this will be his biggest test so far.
Buveur D'Air is attempting to become just the sixth horse in the history of the two-mile championship to win three times.
"I do think he has to pull out more. He has to be better than last year, because I think it is a better race than last year," said Henderson.
"The opposition appears to be in Ireland. Apple's Jade looked very good [in the Irish Champion Hurdle) and it will be interesting to see Laurina, how she runs this week (at Punchestown on Wednesday)."
Apple's Jade stormed to a fine front-running success in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown recently, convincing owners Gigginstown she merits a tilt at the boys next month over a run in the Mares' Hurdle.
She is 9/4 to win the Champion Hurdle while Mullins' Laurina is priced at 7/2. Despite giving away the mares' allowance, Henderson still feels Buveur D'air is the benchmark.
"I still think he is the one to beat if all goes well between now and then. At least he has had that run at Sandown, as he does take an awful lot of work," he added.
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