Wednesday 23 October 2019

Elliott hoping Jade can walk on D'Air

Meath trainer locked in fascinating battle as his star mare throws down gauntlet to Henderson's reigning champion

Well covered: Trainer Gordon Elliott is equipped for the wintry weather as he surveys his Champion Hurdle hope Apple’s Jade and the rest of his string working on the gallops at Cheltenham ahead of today’s opener. Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Well covered: Trainer Gordon Elliott is equipped for the wintry weather as he surveys his Champion Hurdle hope Apple’s Jade and the rest of his string working on the gallops at Cheltenham ahead of today’s opener. Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

It's billed as the race of the Festival with Buveur D'Air chasing Cheltenham immortality and his third successive Champion Hurdle crown, but it's also a fascinating battle between three of the greatest trainers to ever take out a license.

Nicky Henderson has his sights set on his beloved 'Buveur' joining a select crew of hurdling legends like Istabraq as a three-time winner, but Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins stand in his way with wonder mares Apple's Jade and Laurina.

With 143 Festival winners between them (Mullins 61, Henderson 60 and Elliott 22), it's only fitting that this exceptional trio should dominate the showpiece event on the opening day at the Cotswolds.

Not since 2005 - when Hardy Eustace outbattled Harchibald and Brave Inca in a pulsating finish after jumping the last together - has there been this much expectation around a Champion Hurdle, but that wasn't the case a few months ago.

It looked for all the world that Buveur D'Air would hold onto his crown for a third year after he stuffed Elliott's highly-touted Samcro in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, but defeat at Kempton on St Stephen's Day has removed his cloak of invincibility.

The sustained brilliance of Apple's Jade, and the decision by Elliott and powerful owner Michael O'Leary to reroute her from the Mares' Hurdle, has changed the picture drastically and the Meath trainer was left with no option but to send the brilliant seven-year-old mare to the Champion Hurdle after her most recent exploits at Leopardstown.

Bloodless

A bloodless victory in the Irish equivalent and the public outcry for her to tackle Buveur D'Air were taken on board as Elliott - winner of the Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award for the past two years - set his eyes on landing a first Champion Hurdle.

"Everyone was telling me - people you respect in racing and press people - before the Dublin Racing Festival that she could win a Champion Hurdle. I didn't know if she could show the pace she showed in Leopardstown," Elliott explained.

"She just showed how good she is. She was awesome the last day and has been awesome all season. If she wins a Champion Hurdle she'll be a hero. She's a hero in my eyes already, but if she could do that she'd be something special."

It would be the "icing on the cake" for the ten-time Grade One winner - which receives a valuable 7lb mares' allowance from the reigning champion along with Laurina and Henderson's Verdana Blue - but the man that has thwarted his bid to become Irish champion trainer also stands in his way.

Just four mares have claimed the Champion Hurdle, but Mullins has a hugely exciting talent in Laurina with many predicting that she could reach the same heights as stablemate Annie Power, the last mare to land the €525,000 contest when scoring three years ago.

Punters love potential and Laurina's is limitless. This will be her first foray against males but the unbeaten six-year-old has oozed class with her six starts for Mullins combining to a staggering total winning distance of 106 lengths.

Partnered by the incomparable Ruby Walsh - seeking a record fifth win in the race and the Festival's most successful jockey with 58 victories - adds further intrigue with the 39-year-old unsure of just how good Laurina may be, and eager to find out.

"Laurina will have to achieve a lot to be better than Annie Power. The potential is there but that has to be developed into reality. I genuinely don't know how good Laurina is, but she gives you a great feel," he said.

Mullins also saddles last year's runner-up Melon and the improving Sharjah but all nine challengers must step up to Buveur D'Air's standard and Henderson couldn't be happier with the JP McManus-owned eight-year-old.

"I would be comfortable to say he is as good as we have had him all year. Barry (Geraghty) came and schooled him and then rode him in a bit of work last week and thought he felt great - sometimes he tells me he doesn't," the Seven Barrows handler said.

"It would be great if he could do it as he would join history if he could. I do think it is more competitive than last year, but I don't think he was right last year. Our two biggest problems are undoubtedly the two Irish mares and they are getting 7lb. If the ground goes soft it will suit Buveur D'Air, but it will also suit Apple's Jade and Laurina.

"Buveur D'Air has been in good form, but I am frightened of the two mares. Laurina might be the slower of the two and in that case Apple's Jade is the one we have to beat."

The Mullins-Walsh axis have long been the go-to combination after the famous roar goes up in the Festival opener - the Supreme Novices' Hurdle - with the Closutton maestro training the last five favourites with two obliging, two coming home second and one unplaced.

A major plunge on Klassical Dream in recent days could see the five-year-old go off favourite for the red-hot duo but the home team also hold aces in the much-fancied Al Dancer for Nigel Twiston-Davies and Henderson's Angels Breath.

For all the talk of the smaller team which Mullins has brought across the Irish Sea, the champion trainer has no shortage of quality and all eyes will be on Benie Des Dieux - viewed by the pair as their banker of the week - in today's Mares' Hurdle.

Their Mares' Hurdle record is unparalleled - in the 11-year history of the Grade One, they've taken the spoils nine times, including six with the magnificent Quevega (2009-'14) - and they'll be hoping to make it a perfect ten on what is a fascinating day's racing which is truly fit for kings.

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