Apple’s Jade the pick of formidable Irish raiding party

Getabird and Footpad well-placed to strike for Grade One glory for Mullins

Apple’s Jade ridden by Bryan Cooper (right) beats Vroom Vroom Mag ridden by Paul Townend to win the OLBG Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham last year. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Apple’s Jade ridden by Bryan Cooper (right) beats Vroom Vroom Mag ridden by Paul Townend to win the OLBG Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham last year. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

The English-trained Buveur D’Air is an overwhelming favourite to successfully defend his Champion Hurdle title but otherwise the start of Cheltenham 2018 looks set to underline Ireland’s unprecedented strength at jump racing’s greatest festival.

Buveur D’Air’s Champion Hurdle success a year ago didn’t prevent Irish-trained horses ultimately securing a scarcely believable 19 of the 28 races.

There has been 6-1 available about this year’s Irish raiding party breaking that record this week, odds that normally would feel like bookmaker PR but which amplify the sense that these are very abnormal times for Ireland’s raiding party.

The record 2017 haul was fundamentally built on the overwhelming power of both Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott.

For years Mullins has been the foundation of Irish fortunes, leading trainer five times on the back of a sustained run of success that leaves him just four shy of Nicky Henderson’s all-time record tally of 58 festival winners.

However Elliott’s emerging threat to Mullins’s dominance in Ireland transferred across the water last year and the outcome was six winners each with Elliott nicking the Leading Trainer Award on count-back of placed horses.

That award indicated how Irish fortunes now revolve around two training titans and both again arrive at Cheltenham with the sort of ammunition to make the home team quake.

Elliott’s Apple’s Jade defends her OLBG Mares Hurdle crown and Michael O’Leary’s hugely popular star is assured of ‘Irish Banker’ status.

Mullins’s favourites for the first two Grade One prizes may not be quite in the same league in terms of their ‘lock’ status.

After all Getabird has 19 opponents in the Skybet Supreme Novices Hurdle while plenty good judges give Petit Mouchoir a good chance of reversing previous form with Footpad in the Racing Post Arkle.

But that pair look to dominate the chase while Getabird’s biggest threat could yet turn out to be Elliott’s Mengli Khan.

Since rivalry depends on well-matched sides it’s interesting to ponder how overwhelming dominance might impact on Cheltenham’s famed Anglo-Irish element. Having it too lop-sided is hardly good for anyone in the long run.

Stamina test

But such theory won’t stop most of the visitors making hay while they can, or at least as much hay as can be saved in the sort of sopping conditions that are awaiting this week.

Of course that’s the sort of presumption that usually gets kicked out of the way at Cheltenham and bruised pride since last year could well see the home team bounce back with a vengeance.

In fact perhaps the most fascinating factor in teasing out each race will be ground conditions more testing than have been seen in decades.

It had become almost an article of faith that Cheltenham starts on perfect ‘good to soft’ National Hunt going. In terms of immediate form calculation, and possibly even back as far back as young talent originally being purchased, that article will have been widely presumed.

This however promises to be the sort of gruelling stamina test we’ve got used to all winter. The cliché is that Irish-based horses are used to running in bogs. The reality is that most of Ireland’s elite performers are anticipated to step up significantly on a sounder surface.

So whether a winter spent competing in races in Britain which are generally run at a faster tempo will ultimately work out to be in the home team’s favour remains to be seen.

But a dour stayer like La Bague Au Roi now looks to have a better chance of upsetting Apple’s Jade than she did before.

Heavy going should also work in Saint Calvados’ favour as he takes on both Footpad and Petit Mouchoir in the Arkle. Getabird and his seven compatriots in the Supreme will also have to get the better of a hardened handicap winner in Kalashnikov.

As for the two handicaps, any long-term planning based on decent ground will be mostly redundant while the prospect of four miles in the National Hunt Chase will test resolve to the max.

Marathon test

Ms Parfois at least has to carry less weight in the marathon test than her male rivals. She also boasts good form on soft going and might have been attempting a mission-impossible on her last start at Ascot when chasing home Britain’s prime RSA hope, Black Corton.

Irish racing’s big guns are all represented in the concluding novices handicap chase although Barney Dwan could be a formidable opponent. Runner-up to Presenting Percy in last year’s Pertemps, Barney Dwan has won his last two and crucially also has winning form over hurdles on heavy ground.

No Irish line up for the Ultima Handicap Chase. Venetia Williams is a trainer well known for managing to make hay with her horses on winter ground. If her hope, Yala Enki, has recovered from a gruelling win at Haydock last month he could make his bottomless stamina tell again.

In terms of the Grade One prizes though it can be business as has become usual for the raiders – Getabird and Footpad for Mullins; Apple’s Jade for Elliott.

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