Laurina can prove she’s the real deal in Champion Hurdle

Willie Mullins’s mare set for Cheltenham day one showdown with Apple’s Jade

Paul Townend guiding Laurina to victory in last year’s mares’ novice hurldle at Cheltenham. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Paul Townend guiding Laurina to victory in last year’s mares’ novice hurldle at Cheltenham. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Just four mares have ever won the Unibet Champion Hurdle. Many feel the 2019 renewal boils down to whether or not Apple’s Jade or Laurina becomes number five.

Such presumption has a nasty habit of crashing down at the last, and with certainty at a political premium far beyond Cheltenham, there is even more sense of tempting fate about portraying a championship race in such terms.

But despite Buveur D’Air lining up to try and become just the sixth horse to land a Champion Hurdle hat-trick, there’s a widespread sense he’s going to lose out in this particular gender war.

The three mares in the big race get a 7lb sex allowance. It’s a controversial allocation in a sport that otherwise prides itself on male and female competing on an equal footing.

Some suspect it is too much of a concession. Apple’s Jade’s owner Michael O’Leary has long argued it shouldn’t exist in Grade One races at all.

The Ryanair boss believes it skews against finding out who the best horse actually is. Not surprisingly though, he’s quite prepared to take it.

In Apple’s Jade’s case it has helped her compile a magnificent career statistic of ten Grade One victories already. Seven have been again males. She’s had the allowance every time.

Victory today would cement her huge popularity with the racing public and secure O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud jump racing’s unofficial Triple Crown. The businessman has already scored twice already in both the Gold Cup and the Grand National.

Apple’s Jade is a true superstar of the sport. Everything Laurina has done to date suggests she has the potential to be the same.

Unbeaten in half a dozen starts for Willie Mullins, the six year old hasn’t come even close to being stretched.

This will be the first time Mullins pitches her against males. But the last of his four Champion Hurdle victories was with another mare, Annie Power, who used the sex allowance to devastating effect in 2016.

Hat-trick attempt

So while Buveur D’Air is the reigning title-holder, so much of his hat-trick attempt revolves around the odds on him, and every other gelding in the race, being able to successfully concede 7lbs to two exceptional mares.

As well as her outstanding CV, Apple’s Jade will also have widespread sentiment on her side as large sections of the public have taken O’Leary’s star to their hearts. She will once again have 19-year-old Jack Kennedy on her back too.

The partnership has proved invincible this year including when running away with last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle.

That was her first start at the minimum trip in over two years, a reflection of her trainer Gordon Elliott’s once dismissive attitude towards ambitions Apple’s Jade might have had towards a Champion Hurdle. He once memorably announced she would get lapped in it.

However after a 2018 campaign repeatedly disrupted by coming into season at the wrong time, efforts to get her cycle under control have helped Apple’s Jade produce the form of her life this season.

That superb Leoparsdtown victory left Elliott and O’Leary with little choice but to abandon plans to go for the OLBG Hurdle and instead shoot for the ultimate prize.

If there remain concerns about her tendency to jump slightly right there is also the possibility that her career-high official rating of 166 still isn’t at the limit of her abilities.

Figures-wise it gives Apple’s Jade a slight edge on Buveur D’Air and puts her well clear of Laurina.

But if there’s a chance that 166 isn’t the limit of Apple’s Jade’s capacity it’s a lot more likely that Laurina’s official 159 mark is considerably short of what she’s still got under bonnet.

Two runs this season – one a 1-8 saunter over a single opponent at Sandown in January – indicate last year’s festival novice winner is still a work in progress.

Certainly Annie Power and the legendary 1984 winning mare Dawn Run had accomplished a lot more before landing the Champion Hurdle.

However the impression Laurina has made has been huge, including when running away with last year’s mares’ novice hurdle here.

Such Cheltenham form is always a plus and the fact Laurina is partnered by Ruby Walsh – seeking a record fifth win in the race – hardly hurts either.

If Apple’s Jade is the proven accomplished article then Laurina is all about potential. The prospect of a classic head-to-head duel up the Cheltenham hill, complete with the resonance of Mullins V Elliott, not to mention O’Leary’s famous 2016 split with Mullins, is fascinating.

And Laurina can ultimately prove to be the real deal.

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