Ben Linfoot reflects on the victory of Apple’s Jade in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown

Apple's Jade
Apple's Jade

As Apple’s Jade destroyed her Irish Champion Hurdle opponents by 16 lengths, Ben Linfoot ponders connections’ next move in his report from day one of the Dublin Racing Festival.

Crisp enough for snow to dust the top of the hills surrounding Leopardstown, the dazzling winter sun that helped get the remaining frost out of the ground proved a hindrance as well as a help. While conditions thawed out nicely, the final flight of hurdles in the home straight was dolled off on safety grounds on the opening day of the second running of the Dublin Racing Festival.

Removing the obstacle helped some. Relegate, for example, didn’t jump a hurdle and looked to be throwing in a moody performance in the meeting’s opener, but gained significant ground on the field in the final three furlongs when she didn’t have to lift off again. The Champion Bumper winner did well to finish only seven lengths off the horse in front, Commander In Fleet, a gelding that threw his hat into several Cheltenham Festival rings after bouncing back from his Royal Bond defeat.

He was a winner for Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown and that set the tone for the day. But out of all Elliott’s winners, three in total for the County Meath handler, none set the pulse racing quite like Apple’s Jade in the Irish Champion Hurdle, a quite magnificent mare who has won her four starts this season by a combined total of 73 lengths.

Today there were 16 lengths separating her from last year’s winner Supasundae, an old rival who has chased her backside home on three occasions now, the omitted final flight not making any difference here such was the class difference between the daughter of Saddler Maker and her rivals.

This was her 10th Grade One success and she’s just as breath-taking now as when she won her first, a 41-length demolition job at Aintree as a juvenile. That was three years ago, at a time when she was still trained by Willie Mullins, but the seven-year-old Apple’s Jade is undoubtedly better now than she ever was, this victory ensuring she’s won top-level races over two miles, two-and-a-half miles and three miles this campaign.

What do you do with such a versatile mare? The Mares’ Hurdle over 2m4f if you listen to the owners: “She qualifies for that race,” says a laughing Eddie O’Leary. “We’ve just won a Champion Hurdle,” he says, still laughing, when pressed on whether the prestige of possibly winning THE Champion Hurdle, at Cheltenham, could tempt them into running her against Buveur D’Air et al.

Elliott wasn’t any more forthcoming on whether this performance enhances the chances of her running over two miles, against the boys, on the opening day of Cheltenham.

“To be honest, if I tell you something like that I’d be telling you a lie,“ he says. “We’ll take the mare home, make sure she’s in one piece and take it from there. She’s a very good mare and we’re very lucky to have her. I’m going to enjoy tonight and see what happens. Anything is a possibility.

“A lot of credit has to go to Michael O’Leary and Gigginstown for running the mare today. It’s a big ask to come back to two miles and they were ballsy enough to do it.”

Whether they are ballsy enough to run her in the Champion Hurdle remains the big question. The fact that she is thriving and had the pace to destroy a Grade One field on good ground, with a hurdle omitted, by 16 lengths, suggests it would be worth having a go. The 7lb sex allowance could swerve things in her favour, and, while connections remain coy on the idea, publicly at least, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see her line up in the championship event.

Let’s hope she does, as she would give that race some shot in the arm.

Another dilemma for Cheltenham is where to run Min, an easy winner of the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase, just like he was last year. The race fell apart with only three of the five completing, so connections didn’t learn an awful lot and the poser remains the same as it was before – the Champion Chase and another meeting with Altior, or the Ryanair over further without having to take on the Nicky Henderson-trained monster.

A sad postscript to the day was the news that Henry de Bromhead lost two horses to fatal injuries, Malinas Jack and the fabulous jumper Special Tiara, the 2017 Queen Mother Champion Chase winner, who won three Grade Ones in a superb career. It was no wonder De Bromhead pulled out one of his up-and-coming two-mile chasers, Paloma Blue, from the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase, on account of the ground following such a difficult afternoon.

That left Le Richebourg’s task easier, and it became even less taxing after Knocknanuss fell early on. Joseph O’Brien trained the one-two, with Us And Them chasing his stablemate home, but again we learnt little as far as the winner’s Cheltenham ambitions are concerned.

What We Learnt

Core… Apple is the real deal

Apple’s Jade has the speed for the Champion Hurdle. She was sublime and it would be a shame if she wasn’t allowed the chance to run in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on account of having an easier option the same week.

Le Richebourg looks short

He couldn’t have done it much more impressively today, but Le Richebourg looks short at 3/1 (Non Runner No Bet) and 4/1 (general price) for the Arkle. Paloma Blue was withdrawn due to the ground and Knocknanuss fell early on, so the substance to this form looks suspect to say the least.

Defi Bleu isn’t up to Grade One level yet…

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep an eye on him. He’s treading a very familiar path to stablemate Delta Work, who also went to Limerick then this meeting before turning up in a Pertemps qualifier. Punchestown next for Defi Bleu would raise a few eyebrows.

Jezki still loves the game

When you see a Champion Hurdler drop to a rating of 145 and take his chance in handicap company, at the age 11, you don’t really expect an awful lot. Punters certainly didn’t, anyway, as he was sent off 16/1 for the Ladbrokes Hurdle, but a terrific effort from the front almost paid dividends under 7lb claimer Darragh O’Keefe, suggesting there’s life in the old boy yet.

And finally. One for tomorrow…

Cubomania for that man Gordon Elliott in the Abbey International Leopardstown Handicap Chase at 4.10. He goes well on good ground and stepping up in trip to 2m5f looks a potential source of further improvement on his last two excellent runs over half a mile shorter.

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