Apple’s Jade fans hope class is permanent for four-in-a-row Hatton’s Grace bid
Samcro and Envoi Allen give Elliott strong hand in other ‘Winter Festival’ highlights
Apple’s Jade: in last year’s Hatton’s Grace Hurdle the mare produced possibly the finest performance to date of her outstanding career. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
For the remarkable Apple’s Jade to complete an unprecedented four-in-a-row in Sunday’s ‘Winter Festival’ highlight at Fairyhouse she needs to prove form is temporary and class is permanent.
The Michael O’Leary-owned mare is one of just a trio of horses ever to win the Bar One Hatton’s Grace Hurdle three times and on official ratings remains a standout proposition to carve out a unique niche for herself.
A mark of 162 is superior to her closest-rated rival Penhill but the 7lbs sex allowance thrown on top of that is a factor that has made the hugely popular Apple’s Jade all but unbeatable at her very best.
The problem is that her very best hasn’t been seen since a stunning tenth Grade One triumph in February’s Irish Champion Hurdle.
Since then she has been beaten four times, most pertinently in last month’s Lismullen defeat at 1-4 odds by another of Willie Mullins’s three runners on Sunday, Bacardys. Nothing has come to light to explain that lacklustre display and during the week Gordon Elliott had the air of a trainer hoping for the best but not anticipating it.
It would hardly be the greatest surprise for a mare to confound expectations in a race that last year possibly saw her greatest-ever career performance.
The worry must be though that it’s a career which will stretch to 25 starts this weekend and one element that’s never temporary is the march of time.
One thing in her favour however is that regular pilot Jack Kennedy is fit again and the 19-year-old jockey, who returned from a broken collarbone on Thursday, will raise the Fairyhouse roof if he can rediscover the peak Apple’s Jade.
Even on a triple-Grade One programme featuring two of Elliott’s great novice hopes, Envoi Allen and Samcro, it is Apple’s Jade who will be an overwhelming sentimental favourite, maybe even managing to attract her owner into a rare foray to the races. The Ryanair boss’s decision to wind up his Gigginstown Stud operation within five years doesn’t have any short-term impact on the first major top-flight fixture of the season.
O’Leary and Elliott famously combined to win all three Grade Ones in 2017. This time Abacadabras s takes on his stable companion Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, accompanied by two other Gigginstown runners, while Samcro is joined in the Drinmore Novice Chase by Tintangle.
Over the last five years the three Grade One’s have been won just twice by trainers outside the Elliott-Mullins axis but bookmakers reckon that dominance could be threatened this time.
If there’s near-unanimity that Envoi Allen is a potential standout in the Royal Bond, then some layers reckon it is Honeysuckle’s potential rather than Apple’s Jade’s form in the book which is enough to make her a Hatton’s Grace favourite.
Victory on Sunday could herald the emergence of a new superstar mare although in betting value terms Penhill might be an option.
Paul Townend has stayed loyal to Bacardys rather than the horse he won the 2018 Stayers Hurdle on. The notoriously fragile Penhill hasn’t run in over 18 months but he overcame a long absence to secure his greatest day at Cheltenham. Maybe he can ultimately prove that quality does endure.
Joseph O’Brien’s Fakir D’oudairies gets a four year old allowance in the Drinmore where Irish racing’s one-time next-big-thing Samcro will attempt to rehabilitate his reputation over fences.
His debut over the bigger obstacles at Down Royal was pretty much faultless as was Fakir D’oudairies at Navan. Both face a rare proposition though in Burrows Saint, an Irish Grand National winner with a potential Grade One pay-off in his sights on a last day with novice status.
If either can beat Burrows Saint in style then they will be hard to topple from the top of the novice chase category this season.
Those who already suspect Envoi Allen of being all impossible to budge from the novice hurdle summit will expect nothing but a smooth Royal Bond victory from last season’s bumper champion.