Gordon Elliott’s winning streak continues with Apple’s Jade
Willie Mullins hit back with Grade 1 winner Airlie Beach but remains behind in title race
Bryan Cooper celebrates on Apple’s Jade after winning the Bar One Racing Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and is congratulated by trainer Gordon Elliott during day two of the Winter Festival at Fairyhouse racecourse, Co. Meath. Photo: PA
Arguing that Apple’s Jade’s thrilling defeat of Vroum Vroum Mag in Sunday’s ‘Winter Festival’ feature at Fairyhouse represents a microcosm of the flourishing rivalry between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott is a lot easier than pretending their compelling competition to be Ireland’s champion trainer doesn’t exist.
Elliott continues to maintain he has little chance of dethroning Irish racing’s dominant figure even though Apple’s Jade landing the Bar One Racing Hatton’s Grace Hurdle helped take him past the €2 million prizemoney mark in Ireland this season. It also helped maintain his lead over Mullins despite Airlie Beach having earlier led home a Mullins 1-2 in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle and it moved some bookmakers to cut Elliott to 5-4 for the trainer’s title.
In contrast, Mullins has adopted a detached attitude to what is fast becoming the hook upon which so much of this season’s narrative is hanging from. The coal-face reality however looked to break through to the surface after Ruby Walsh’s win on Un De Sceaux in Saturday’s Tingle Creek.
“The more you write us off, the more you piss us off, the harder we fight,” declared the champion jockey in a rousing statement to media in Sandown. “I’m part of a team that has a huge amount of belief still and I work for a guy who does the right thing. He takes the pressure and does the right thing all the time,” Walsh added.
Considering he rode the latest in a series of winners for Elliott this season at Limerick on Friday, it left little doubt in which camp the rider belongs to, or the depth of feeling which exists no matter what some of the more anodyne public utterances might indicate. Certainly the reverberations from Michael O’Leary’s decision in September to remove his 60 horses from Mullins - part of a trying autumn overall for the champion trainer - was stamped all over a dramatic Hatton’s Grace finish.
Mullins prepared Apple’s Jade for a pair of dramatic Grade 1 victories last season so he would be less than human to have watched with ‘what might have been’ feelings as she rallied to outgun Walsh on the 4-7 favourite Vroum Vroum Mag: that she’s now trained by Elliott must have only added salt. Apple’s Jade’s new trainer has quickly concluded she is no Champion Hurdle candidate and turning out just eight days after a narrow defeat in Newcastle’s Fighting Fifth it was the extra half-mile that looked critical to this latest Grade 1 success.
“I weighed her this morning and she was actually heavier than at Newcastle last week so I said we’d let her take her chance,” said Elliott. Bryan Cooper recovered from a fall from Peace News in the Royal Bond to partner Apple’s Jade who is now as low as 2-1 to assume Vroum Vroum Mag’s crown in Cheltenham’s OLBG Hurdle in March.
The teak-tough winner is likely to go there on the back of one more run although an exultant Elliott joked: “Saying that, she might run next week!”
O’Leary described the win as a surprise and conceded: “I think she probably suffered a bit in the transition from Willie’s to Gordon’s.”
He added: “It’s great for Gordon and for Bryan and I have to say thanks to Willie and Harold Kirk who bought her. Without them we wouldn’t own her.”
It was a gracious statement, undoubtedly sincere, which did little to dilute the promise of a potentially intriguing winter slug-fest between Elliott and Mullins, with the influence of O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud providing its own intriguing twist.
Airlie Beach’s Royal Bond victory emphasised the role of the fairer sex on a triple-Grade 1 card. Considering she has already bred a foal, Airlie Beach is proving to be a revelation, stretching her unbeaten career record to seven, including six hurdles in a row over the last five months.
Danny Mullins bounced her out in front and Peace News’ fall had her in command over the closing stages. “I never dreamed she’d be a Grade 1 mare,” admitted Mullins who also had the runner up Saturnas. Airlie Beach is as low as 7-2 for the mares novice hurdle at Cheltenham.