One of the great Cheltenham Festival races is set to take place next Tuesday as three superstars of the National Hunt world do battle in the Champion Hurdle, with only the toughest prevailing as the winner on March 12.
Nicky Henderson's Buveur D'Air will line up as the reigning champion having won the Champion Hurdle for the last two seasons, but he will face a deadly duo from Ireland with Gordon Elliott's Apple's Jade and Willie Mullins's Laurina set to serve up an almighty challenge in the Grade One showpiece.
We assess all three horses chances and decide which of the hurdling heavyweights will prevail:
Trainer: Nicky Henderson
Cheltenham Festival Wins: 2
Season Form: 1st, 2nd, 1st
A dominant four-and-a-half length winner of the 2017 Champion Hurdle, Buveur D'Air was made to work a lot harder last year as he only fended off Melon by a neck to retain the Grade One crown.
A shock defeat in the Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day left many questioning whether the JP McManus-owned raider still possessed his top-class qualities, but a facile win in the Contenders Hurdle should sharpen him up for next week's race and the Seven Barrows team will have him firing on all cylinders next week.
One of the slickest jumpers of a hurdle in training when on top form, Buveur D'Air appears to light up when he heads to Prestbury Park, and if Nicky Henderson can help manufacture a little improvement out of his star come the festival then he is the one to beat, and his speed could just see him prevail.
Trainer: Gordon Elliott
Cheltenham Festival Wins: 1
Season Form: 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st
Apple's Jade heads to the Cheltenham Festival in the form of her life and following the news a few weeks ago that the Gordon Elliott-trained mare will head down the Champion Hurdle route then National Hunt fans have been licking their lips at her duel with Buveur D'Air.
A winner of the 2017 Mares' Hurdle, Apple's Jade failed to follow up last season when beaten by Benie Des Dieux in what was a mediocre performance from the Irish starlet. However, her dominance in Ireland this season has forced Elliott's hand to run her in the Champion Hurdle.
A sensational cruising speed, Apple's Jade has been the star of this Jumps season, but she may just lack that technical speed needed to win a Champion Hurdle, so if they fail to go a searing gallop from the flag fall then she could prove vulnerable to Buveur D'Air's superior kick.
Trainer: Willie Mullins
Cheltenham Festival Wins: 1
Season Form: 1st, 1st
A magnificent 18-length winner of the Mares' Novices' Hurdle last season, Laurina is aiming to step out of the mares division and beat the boys in the Champion Hurdle. A 48-length win at Sandown on her first start was followed by an easy win in a Listed mares' event last time out, but the Champion Hurdle will be a whole new test for her.
Ruby Walsh has openly admitted that he isn't sure how good she is, but she will have to be an absolute superstar to bag the Champion Hurdle crown, and while she will enjoy a return to Prestbury Park next week, it could just be a bridge too far this time around.
Only six years old, Laurina will benefit from the experience of taking on the elite hurdlers in Britain and Ireland, but in Buveur D'Air and Apple's Jade she will face two proven top-class, experienced horses and this year's race could just see her fail in her quest for more festival glory.
How Will The Race Go?
Apple's Jade has proven Grade One-winning form over three miles, so she is sure to set the tempo from the outset. Buveur D'Air and Laurina are sure to stalk the Gigginstown House Stud-owned charge through the first half of the race. As the trio freewheel down the hill, the race will be won or lost by the triumvirate in the final six furlongs. Barry Geraghty will gradually ease a little closer to the lead down the hill, while Ruby Walsh could just bide his time a little on Laurina.
Apple's Jade will attempt to kick half-a-mile from home, but Geraghty will pull upsides at the last and find enough to quicken up the hill to prevail by a length, while Laurina will just pip Apple's Jade in the shadow of the post to grab second in a thriller.
2019 Champion Hurdle Prediction:
Winner: Buveur D'Air
Third: Apple's Jade
The first back-to-back winner since Hardy Eustace