Apple’s Jade takes centre stage on final day of jumps season

Irish Stallion Farms Mares Champion Hurdle win could be vital for Gordon Elliott

Apple’s Jade ridden by Bryan Cooper clears the last on the way to winning the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle at Punchestown last year.  Photograph:  Brian Lawless/PA

Apple’s Jade ridden by Bryan Cooper clears the last on the way to winning the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle at Punchestown last year. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

 As the curtain descends on a momentous 2016-17 National Hunt season there’s an aptness to Apple’s Jade taking centre stage at Punchestown on Saturday.

So many of the main threads in a remarkable campaign are summed up in the fortunes of Apple’s Jade who tries for a third Grade One victory this season in the Irish Stallion Farms Mares Champion Hurdle.

A year ago she landed the other top-flight prize on the Punchestown festival’s final card – the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle – when trained by Willie Mullins and her route to the top of the senior tree looked straightforward.

September’s seismic split between Mullins and Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team meant it proved to be anything but.

Switched to the champion trainer’s great challenger, Gordon Elliott, Apple’s Jade had Champion Hurdle ambitions ruled out by two initial defeats but her quality rose to the top in a memorable Hatton’s Grace victory and in even more famous Cheltenham success last month.  

That she carried O’Leary’s colours to a dramatic defeat of the Mullins pair, Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini, which was vital to Elliott deposing Mullins as the Cheltenham festival’s leading trainer, neatly summed up so much of what has transpired this season.

Now she returns to action against four Mullins mares in what is, bar the British outsider, Lady Buttons, practically a private Grade One face off between the sport’s superpowers.

On form it’s a relatively straightforward assignment for Apple’s Jade but the intriguing element is Ruby Walsh’s decision to overlook a trio of proven top-flight winners and opt to ride a stable companion who has won two ordinary races in two years.

Karalee really could be anything. But just three lifetime starts in all means she has a mountain to climb in terms of experience alone.

Apple’s Jade is one of 13 declarations on the card for Elliott who will hope that isn’t an unlucky omen in terms of his trainer’s title ambitions. But considering he has usually had a numerical edge this season it’s noteworthy that Mullins has a massive team of 20 declared for the final day.

Headline act

That they don’t include Annie Power will be a regret for many and there’s also no denying the absence of the season’s outstanding four year old, Defi Du Seuil, robs the big juvenile prize of a headline act.

This could turn into another Mullins-Elliott show and it will be the fifth time that Bapaume and Mega Fortune have clashed this term.

Each has finished ahead of the other on two occasions although it has been Mega Fortune who has had an edge the last two times, including when just a short head in front of his rival as they chased home Defi Du Seuil in the Triumph.

Mullins’s slight disappointment with Bapaume at Cheltenham – “I thought he might run a little bit better than he did: hopefully he can find some improvement” – is interesting and ground conditions could swing things towards a fifth win in a row for the champion trainer in this race.   

Mullins dominates the top of the €100,000 handicap hurdle but could have a value option at the other end of the scale in Pique Sous. The new champion conditional Rachel Blackmore takes 3lbs off Pique Sous who ran here over two miles earlier this week and was predictably outpaced in the closing stages.

Britain’s National Hunt campaign also winds up at Sandown on Saturday where Special Tiara flies the Irish flag in the four-runner Celebration Chase.

Special Tiara memorably took advantage of Douvan’s flop at Cheltenham to assume the two-mile crown so on quick ground, and over Sandown’s famous obstacles, Henry De Bromhead’s star represents a true test for the star novice Altior.

Nicky Henderson’s seven year old is widely expected to be the stable’s successor to Sprinter Sacre and has already put up some huge performances for a novice on official figures.

Such theory is one thing but Special Tiara is a proper seasoned two-miler who also has the in-form Noel Fehily on his back.

“Altior looks very good but our lad has every chance. He put up a superb performance at Cheltenham and beat Fox Norton. And we’ve seen what he has gone on to do at Aintree and Punchestown,” said De Bromhead.

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