DEFENDING Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air must improve on his performance at last year’s Cheltenham Festival if he is to land a third successive win in the prestigious race, according to trainer Nicky Henderson.

The eight-year-old, who last season defeated Willie Mullins’ Melon by a neck in the opening day’s showpiece race, will become the first horse to win three Champion Hurdles on the spin since Istabraq (1998-2000) if successful next month.

A general 15/8 favourite for the race, Henderson’s star horse is likely to be challenged by Gordon Elliott’s Apple’s Jade (2/1) and the Mullins pair of Laurina (7/2) and Sharjah (12/1).

It is unclear if Irish Champion Hurdle winner Apple’s Jade will line up in the Champion Hurdle or the proceeding Mares’ Hurdle.

Either way, Henderson admits his 16-times under rules winner must produce a stronger performance if Champion Hurdle history is to repeat itself.

Speaking at his pre-Festival media day at his Seven Barrows yard on Monday, Henderson said: “Buveur D’Air will have to be better than last year, it’s a better race.

“I still think he’s the one to beat if all goes well between now and then. He does take a lot of work, and we’ve gone horribly dry again here.

“We’ve had to work on the all-weather, which I don’t prefer compared to the grass.”

Buveur D’Air was one of Henderson’s more fortunate horses to have been blessed with a clear preparation run ahead of the four-day festival next month.

After a surprise defeat in the Christmas Hurdle to stablemate Verdana Blue at Kempton on Boxing Day, Henderson’s bay gelding returned to form when comfortably beating Colin Tizzard’s Vision Des Flos in a Class One listed race at Sandown on February 2.

The sudden outbreak of equine flu followed, denying Henderson a chance to race several of his horses over a seven-day period.

While a racecourse gallop is being planned by the Lambourn-based trainer, he confirmed he has little concern over Buveur D’Air’s form in the build-up to the race.

And he even revealed a possibility behind last season’s ‘below-par’ display over two miles at Cheltenham.

He added: “I don’t think he was his best at last year’s festival.

“He lived in a box next to We Have A Dream – and on the day before the festival, We Have A Dream had a screaming high temperature.

“And the pair live nose to nose. We took We Have A Dream out of the barn at 6am – he didn’t touch his food and had a temperature.

“Buveur D’Air is tough, and he didn’t get over Cheltenham last year. I don’t think he was impressive in the Champion Hurdle.

“It took him apart. It gave us a scare, of course it did.

“He got caught out at Kempton. But he’s in good shape, Sandown was great and on we go.

“You have to keep working him. I would imagine I will run three in the Champion Hurdle.”