Jump racing’s big guns ready to rumble at ‘Winter Festival’

Apple’s Jade attempts to be first in a dozen years to retain Hatton’s Grace Hurdle

Fairyhouse’s ‘Winter Festival’ is the first major Grade One card of the jumps campaign so it’s little surprise National Hunt racing’s big boys are coming out in force.

No one has completed a clean sweep of Sunday's three Grade One races before although Willie Mullins has endured the frustration of coming up one short on four previous occasions.

Along with his great rival Gordon Elliott and Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud team the champion trainer has another chance to pull off a unique hat-trick.

In fact throw in Irish racing’s other great powerhouse owner – JP McManus – and only three of the 20 top-flight runners on Sunday won’t be connected to the two top trainers and two top owners.

The first of the feature events, the Bar One Racing Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, could easily be portrayed in O’Leary v McManus terms with Mullins’s Makitorix the sole encroacher.

It is the classically bred giant Mengli Khan who heads O’Leary’s Royal Bond trio as both the Ryanair boss and Elliott try to break their duck in the novice event.

Death Duty leads another O’Leary-Elliott trio in the later Drinmore Novice Chase but it is their defending champion Apple’s Jade who will probably be the focus of most attention on Sunday in the €100,000 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle.

There are few things to attract the affection of the Irish racing public more than a star mare and Apple's Jade appears to have taken over from Annie Power in such status.

Solerina, a dozen years ago, was the last mare to win the Hatton’s Grace and coincidentally also the last horse to successfully defend the two and a half mile title.

Considering her switch to Elliott last season, part of O’Leary’s decision to split from Mullins, her defeat of Vroum Vroum Mag 12 months ago was a notably emotionally charged success.

Part of that was due to two defeats earlier that season but Apple’s Jade turned her campaign around in style, ultimately winning at both Cheltenham and Punchestown.

Crucial edge

Considering her slow start to last season there was plenty encouragement to be had on her return to action this time. With Jack Kennedy back on board Apple’s Jade comfortably beat a race-fit Jer’s Girl in the Lismullen at Navan and now starts off a career high rating of 156.

That technically leaves her just shy of the Stayers champion Nichols Canyon who leads three Mullins hopes into action.

The Coral Cup winner Supasundae is another making his first start of the season. However it could be that the benefit of that Navan run last month will give Apple's Jade a crucial edge in sharpness.

Snow Falcon and Sean Flanagan will be the plucky underdogs putting it up to Elliott and Mullins in the Drinmore but it's difficult not to bill this contest in terms of Death Duty's potential.

Not many win a Grade One and still have their season billed as an anti-climax but there was an element of that to how the Gigginstown hope finished his novice hurdle season.

Chasing was always going to be his game though. He’s two from two already over fences and he’s likely to be short odds to give O’Leary a fifth Drinmore win in seven years.

Earlier this week Eddie O’Leary dismissed the chances of a Gigginstown hat-trick on Sunday as “zero to none”. He also said an absence of fast enough horses is why the they haven’t figured to date on the Royal Bond roll-of-honour.

Pace appeared to be Mengli Khan’s strong point when he sluiced up in last month’s For Auction at Navan but he has a tough task on his hands on Sunday.

Barry Geraghty has rather surprisingly opted for Le Richebourg over Red Jack who will be ridden for the first time by Sean Flanagan. Red Jack’s jumping debut was perfectly satisfactory and his bumper form looks outstanding.

Willie Mullins will have a rare runner at Carlisle on Sunday when Benie Des Dieux returns to action in a mares chase but his cross-channel focus on Saturday will be on more familiar territory.

It’s 15 years since Mullins saddled Be My Royal to win the Hennessy only for the horse to subsequently fail a controversial dope test.

His subsequent attempts at revenge proved fruitless, even with a class performer like Djakadam, and possibly the famous old race's rebranding as the Ladbrokes Trophy will provoke a first official Irish winner since Bright Highway in 1980.

Total Recall has been favourite for some time on the back of his impressive Munster National victory at Limerick. He will be joined by stable companion Pleasant Company and Irish hopes will also be carried by Noel Meade's A Genie In Abottle.

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