Grace will reveal if Jade still sparkles
Apple's Jade will bid to prove she retains plenty of her old ability when she goes in search of a fourth successive win in the baroneracing.com Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse.
After being at her scintillating best in the first half of last season, with wins in this race, the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown and the Irish Champion Hurdle, Gordon Elliott's ace finished the campaign in disappointing fashion.
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Defeats at Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown were put down to her not being at her best in the second part of the campaign, but when she was well beaten on her return to action this season, Elliott started to think the rigours of competing at the top level for so long might have caught up. "Nothing came to light after her first run, but she's been competing at the top level for four years and she's won 10 Grade Ones," said Elliott.
"I think she's improved from her last run, but whether she's quite what she was, I don't know - but she is in good form. It's very hard for the fillies and she's been running at the top level since she was three. She looks a lot better, so we'll see, but I'd say it's a better Hatton's Grace than it's been for a while - it's a good race."
Another smart mare in the line-up is Henry de Bromhead's unbeaten five-year-old Honeysuckle.
"She's a Grade One winner and she likes Fairyhouse," said De Bromhead. "You have to go into these races at some stage, so we'll give it a go. On her first run (of the season) she was brilliant. Everything was in her favour, but it was a nice race to start her off in," he said. "She looks very good over two-and-a- half (miles). I'd say you could drop back to two miles. I don't know about three miles, but she's just one of those you could do anything with."
Willie Mullins runs three of the six runners, but not his star mare, Benie Des Dieux. But he holds a strong hand with Bacardys, who beat Apple's Jade in the Lismullen Hurdle, and Penhill, and who is returning to action having missed all of last year, as well as Killultagh Vic.
"Bacardys has the recent form," said Mullins. "Penhill is coming back from a long break, but he went very well the other day in a schooling gallop. I've just changed tack with him this year and hopefully he'll stay sound.
"Other years I've been keeping him until after Christmas or even Cheltenham, but I just felt at his age we need to get him to the racetrack and get races into him. If he stays sound we'll head on to Cheltenham and if he doesn't we'll pull stumps and probably end up retiring him. Killultagh Vic is probably the one that's going to find it hardest on the day."
Elliott, meanwhile, is confident Samcro can continue his resurgence in the baroneracing.com Drinmore Novice Chase. The seven-year-old looked a star in the making as a bumper horse and novice hurdler, but fell in the 2018 Punchestown Champion Hurdle and the plug was pulled on last season before the new year after three underwhelming performances.
However, the son of Germany looked much more like his old self when making a winning return to action on his fencing bow at Down Royal a month ago - and Elliott feels a change of stable has helped his charge find a new lease of life.
"I was very happy with what he did first time out," said the Cullentra handler. "He's scoping clean this year, I couldn't get him to scope right last year but this year he is, so we're happy. Samcro has been moved to a new stable we've had built for him where he can walk outside if he wants. It just means that he can have fresh air the whole time, which after the problems of last year is a good thing. If he wants he can go into a woodchip paddock.
"He was bred to be - and bought to be - a chaser and in hindsight it was probably not the wisest thing to try to turn him into a Champion Hurdle horse last season. But the way the year worked out with the weather it could have been a blessing in disguise, as the ground was so quick."
Samcro is a short-priced favourite to see off five rivals in a Grade One contest Elliott has landed five times in the last nine years, with subsequent Gold Cup hero Don Cossack (2013) joined on the roll of honour by the likes of Death Duty (2017) and Delta Work (2018).
He might not have things all his own way, with Willie Mullins confident last season's Irish Grand National hero Burrows Saint can at least give him a run for his money. It is unusual for the winner of such a prestigious handicap to be qualified to run against those with less experience the following season, but the champion trainer has spotted an enticing opportunity to give his charge a run before his novice status expires.
"He has a nice rating, albeit gained over a mile further. I think with the testing conditions, he has a chance," said Mullins. "He certainly will have the experience of jumping fences and around this track. He jumps and stays and he's in against novices. There's very few novices that already have an Irish Grand National in the bag, so that gives him a huge chance. It's good prize-money, so we'll take our chance."
Mullins also runs Chef Des Obeaux, making his debut for the yard after being moved from Nicky Henderson, while Elliott has a second string to his bow in Tintangle. Elliott also appears to hold a strong hand in the baroneracing.com Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, with last season's Champion Bumper hero Envoi Allen joined by high-class stablemate Abacadabras. Envoi Allen made a foot-perfect start to his hurdling career at Down Royal, while Abacadabras has had no trouble in winning his first two starts over flights.
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