Apple's Jade faces new foe as title race goes to wire
Apple's Jade has beaten Willie Mullins-trained rivals narrowly in two Grade Ones this season and she can do it again on the final day of the National Hunt campaign, one that has been like nobody may have expected at the start.
Two Grade Ones at Punchestown today may decide where the trainers' title gong goes, Willie Mullins seeking a tenth on the bounce and closing in all the time this week on Gordon Elliott, to whom Apple's Jade moved from Mullins earlier in the season.
There was considerable speculation that Gigginstown's runner might have gone to Aintree and jostled with Buveur D'Air - but the fact she did not is surely a major plus now, as she arrives for the mares' champion hurdle (3.50) really fresh - unlike Augusta Kate, which had a tiring race only at the Fairyhouse Festival two weekends ago.
The most intriguing point for debate here is Ruby Walsh picking Karalee, which is unexposed and has nothing like Augusta Kate's form. She was supplemented for this, is clearly moving like a topper on the gallops and has been well-punted throughout the week too.
Karalee is by Martaline, trained for Khalid Abdullah by Andre Fabre and the sire of David Pipe's classy grey Dynaste and also Disko, to name but two. She has done little racing, her Limerick rout in March visually spectacular.
It makes it ever so fascinating, yet Apple's Jade (right) is granite-tough, reliable and the logical selection. Augusta Kate's win over Let's Dance in theory makes her a major player, and she clearly is if she can back up her Fairyhouse run.
And the narrative is similar in the other Grade One, the champion juveniles' race (4.25), with Elliott having the form pick but Mullins the quantity to cause serious problems. Incidentally, it is Elliott's record with placed losers this season that has had him ahead in the title tussle.
And once more, Ruby had a difficult decision to make. Bapaume gets his allegiance after his placed Triumph Hurdle finish, when he was just behind Elliott's Mega Fortune, but his stablemate Meri Devie has plenty of potential and was a really classy sort on the level. She has been off for 77 days and should be really fresh now, which gives her a fair chance under David Mullins.
Joseph O'Brien has had an especially quiet Festival, yet Landofhopeandglory is no back number here on ground he will relish after a pleasing Cheltenham run.
The Three.ie Handicap Chase (3.10) should be an enjoyable watch, with 20 runners and any amount in with claims of sorts. Elliott's Bless The Wings deserves a big win, after so many second-place finishes in quality races, including the last two Irish Grand Nationals.
Red Giant, near the foot of the weights, is well-treated if he can get his season back on the rails, yet it is a big if. Call It Magic warmed up for this with a pleasing run at Fairyhouse, but the British have excelled here this week and Warrantor is noted. His Midlands National third gives him solid claims for Warren Greatrex and he carries a lesser weight in a relative sense in Ireland.
Colour Squadron could be worth a punt in the opening Dooley Insurance Cross Country Chase (2.35), despite Mark Walsh riding what seems to be the main JP McManus/Enda Bolger runner, Love Rory.
Love Rory shaped well on Wednesday but was ultimately well-held and has to turn up at his best to win this. Colour Squadron has two good banks runs to his name this term, one of them at Punchestown, and he has won a point under Derek O'Connor. He was a high-class handicapper in his day.
Understandably, most media emphasis is on the Grade Ones, but the undercard has some decent pots up for grabs and Mullins has a nice hand in the Palmerstown House Pat Taaffe Handicap Chase (5.0).
This race is something of a Silver or Bronze Cup for The Crafty Butcher, which has missed the cut for a scatter of better races, but he will be ready in any event and has each-way claims. Hash Brown has not been over-stretched this season and could have longterm Galway Plate aspirations. He's in with a chance.
The €100,000 Ballymore Handicap Hurdle sees Mullins account for the top four in the weights, as well as four others and a reserve. Rachael Blackmore has her last mount before being crowned champion conditional and she can enjoy a fitting victory on Mullins' grey Pique Sous, which seems to be gradually coming to hand.
He stayed onto fourth in a race run over shorter here midweek and, stepping up in distance in a truer-run race, he remains quite interesting, albeit in a nightmare of a race for punters.
Mullins probably did a tour of Closutton yesterday and could still find nothing for the bumper, but Elliott runs The Shearers Wife, to be ridden by champion amateur elect, Jamie Codd. Victory here would ensure a large round of applause for Elliott, but will it be a consoling one or celebratory?