Patrick Mullins: High hopes for Laurina and Sharjah, but 'Apple's' looks ripe
"They crest the home bend in the Champion,
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Apple's Jade still blazing the trail,
Walsh angles Laurina to her outside to challenge,
Geraghty manoeuvres Buveur D'Air towards the inner,
And Sharjah shadows them all,
As they thunder down to the final flight."
The Champion Hurdle this afternoon is a captivating puzzle and the tactics involved will be fascinating and I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if the above words were being belted out by the racecourse commentator as the field rounds the final bend.
So how much rope do the other jockeys give Apple's Jade? When exactly do they launch their challenge? Will Apple's Jade jump too far right? Is Buveur D'Air a true champion or just a very good horse who was around in average years?
Is Laurina as good as she looked last year, against vastly inferior opposition? Is she quick enough? Will she give her hurdles too much air? Is Sharjah just chancing his arm being here, like a teenager with a fake ID in an off licence?
Apple's Jade finally looks like the mare she promised to be. New all-guns-blazing tactics have brought her form to a new level, over all trips.
She doesn't have to lead but a lung-bursting gallop appears to suit her best. She has been simply breathtaking this year, disposing of her opponents like Brigitte Bardot would nonchalantly flick away a cigarette.
She does jump to her right, which is more of a problem here as the back straight continually turns to the left rather than being a straight line like Leopardstown or Fairyhouse. However, I'm not sure there is a horse around that can give her the generous 7lb that mares receive.
Which is why we send one against her that doesn't have to give her weight. Laurina in a very different type than Apple's. She is tall and strong, made from the same cast as Serena Williams compared to Apple's Maria Sharapova frame.
In my short racing lifetime I don't recall a Champion Hurdle winner that had a physique like this mare.
But they say Dawn Run made the geldings look small too. Both would probably be backing Caster Semenya's appeal to the IAAF. The guaranteed strong pace will definitely be a help to her.
We know from what we see in Closutton that this mare is special but we don't know exactly how special. Nobody does. Is she just a good mare or a great one?
When Ruby finally opens her treasure chest on the hill today, we'll find out is it just another box with illusions of grandeur or a genuinely priceless trove. Can she really be another Annie Power?
Buveur D'Air is the reigning dual champion. He has been victorious in 13 of his previous 15 starts. His numbers say he is one of the very best. His vanquished opponents do not. Both are contradictory but indisputable facts. Here, finally, he has a race in which to prove himself.
However, his usual quick-fire precision jumping has deserted him twice this season and his defeat at Christmas is difficult to appraise.
Henderson has had one triple Champion Hurdle winner in See You Then, and McManus another in Istabraq so this is his opportunity to join those immortals, but I'm not sure he is still at his best.
I'm lucky to have the leg-up on Sharjah, which has come the road less travelled. A horrendous fall at Leopardstown 15 months ago when jumping a shadow mid-way through his novice year seemed to knock his confidence for six months.
Then in the fire and fury of the Galway Hurdle, things were forged back into place. A subsequent demolition of an ageing Faugheen was, rightly, regarded with some suspicion.
However, his Senna-like overtaking of the entire field at Leopardstown over Christmas - in little more than 100 yards - showed he has ability which must be considered strongly today. That performance would suggest gears are his weapon of choice, but I'm well aware that Apple's Jade will ensure this race is at the other end of the Richter Scale of pace than his Christmas triumph was.
This is what Cheltenham is all about. A championship with a gang of champs, the winner of which can be hailed the undisputed champion.
For my money, the geldings are up against it giving weight to definitely one and possibly two extraordinary mares. From what we have seen thus far, Apple's Jade is proven and looks in exceptional form.
My heart says Laurina but the head can only pick Apple's Jade.
Meanwhile, I've to wait until the last for my second ride, Ballyward for Dad in the 'four-miler'.
This solid jumper should go close in a contest where most of the market activity is likely to focus on the JP McManus-owned Ok Corral, Nicky Henderson's charge having the benefit of being in the assured hands of Derek O'Connor.
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