Elliott: Jade stronger this year
Gordon Elliott believes Apple's Jade is stronger than ever as she prepares to defend her crown in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse this afternoon.
The five-year-old was one of the most high-profile horses to make the move from Willie Mullins to Elliott last year following the champion trainer's split with Gigginstown House Stud.
Apple's Jade was beaten on her first two starts for her new trainer, but raised her game to see off former stablemate Vroum Vroum Mag in a thrilling renewal of this two-and-a-half-mile Grade One 12 months ago before adding to her top-level tally at Cheltenham and Punchestown in the spring.
She made a successful reappearance in the Lismullen Hurdle at Navan three weeks ago and faces the Mullins-trained Stayers' Hurdle hero Nichols Canyon in what promises to be another intriguing clash between the two powerhouse stables in Irish National Hunt racing.
"Obviously Nichols Canyon is a serious horse and it's hard to beat Willie Mullins anywhere, but our mare is in good form and we'll give it a go," said Elliott, who also saddles outsider Mick Jazz. "She always improves for her first run and Lisa (O'Neill) rides her out every day and she couldn't be happier with her. She's probably a bit stronger this year, which is good."
Nichols Canyon has won eight Grade Ones for the Mullins team, opening his top-level account in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle on this card three years ago. However, Mullins feels he has plenty on his plate on his seasonal reappearance.
"Nichols Canyon is good, he's grand, but it will probably be hard to beat Apple's Jade on form," he said.
Nichols Canyon is one of three Mullins' representatives along with Cilaos Emery and high-class mare Augusta Kate. Cilaos Emery was last seen when beating esteemed stablemate Melon at last season's Punchestown Festival.
"Nichols Canyon is incredibly versatile," said Patrick Mullins. "He has the speed to beat Faugheen over two miles in a Morgiana Hurdle and the stamina to win a Stayers' Hurdle over three miles at Cheltenham. This intermediate distance of two-and-a-half miles should suit him well, but obviously Apple's Jade won this race last year and has already had a run this season.
"Cilaos Emery ran a good race to finish fifth in the Supreme at Cheltenham and improved to beat Melon at Punchestown. This is a big step up for him, but it will let us know where he stands in the pecking order.
"Augusta Kate is a Grade One winner over the course and distance and looked to be giving Death Duty a run for his money when she fell in Naas last season, so she's well able to take on the boys."
Jessica Harrington's Coral Cup hero Supasundae and Joe Murphy's stable star Swamp Fox complete the seven-strong field.
Sunday Indo Sport