Polished Jade primed for big time
Kennedy confident star mare can take on big guns, but he's happy to let owners make the call
It could have gone the way of the Kerry five-in-a-row souvenirs, discarded on the scrapheap of sporting history, or tucked away somewhere as a quirky reminder of the folly of chicken counting, but instead the blanket celebrating Apple's Jade as a third successive winner of the BarOneRacing.com Hatton's Grace hurdle was draped almost instantly on the mare's back. As if there was ever any doubt.
That was a special afternoon. Early December at Fairyhouse, good ground, a good field and a winner worthy of the occasion. Wicklow Brave took off in front with Apple's Jade very quickly in lone pursuit. Patrick Mullins held that place at the head of the field for seven of the ten flights, but once Jack Kennedy brought the winner alongside at the fourth, you got the feeling that Wicklow Brave was there because Kennedy was happy to leave him there.
When the mare took it up with half a mile and three flights remaining it became instantly obvious that this was a special performance by a special horse. Apple's Jade just kept pulling away under Kennedy, with the rest of the field barely in the same parish.
Kennedy is a man of few words and those he does produce are carefully crafted and delivered in his soft Kerry accent, as if the thought he has put into them has removed any hint of mischief.
Even in the immediate aftermath of that Hatton's Grace renewal he kept his emotions in check. "She's unreal. Some achievement. She's class."
But the following day, at trainer Gordon Elliott's hugely impressive stables at Cullentra House in Co Meath, he had a little more to add.
"That was probably the best she's been when I've ridden her. I suppose you can't beat the Cheltenham winners, but I got a great thrill out of that yesterday." Of course, all the armchair trainers and bar stool jockeys want to see Apple's Jade run in either the Champion or the Stayers' Hurdle at Cheltenham, but Kennedy is too cute to walk into that trap.
"Where she goes next is up to Gordon (Elliott) and the O'Learys. I'll just be happy to be on her wherever she goes. I wouldn't be afraid of taking on Buveur D'Air with half a stone weight pull, I wouldn't be afraid of it. She made two very good horses look moderate yesterday."
But in a different world, if Kennedy owned her, would he let the mare take her chance against the big guns? "I'll be diplomatic and leave that aside," he says. "I'd be happy enough to ride her wherever she goes. Her hurdling is very good, that has to be said, she's very quick to get from one side of a hurdle to the other. She can get a bit wound up at times, but once you jump off with her, she's grand."
Apple's Jade is odds on to defend her crown in Friday's Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle at a Leopardstown Festival that offers the prestige of seven Grade Ones and prizemoney of €1.4m. Elliott will be mob-handed, with no shortage of opportunities for Kennedy to visit the winners' enclosure over the four days.
The action begins on St Stephen's Day and Kennedy will be straight into the thick of it aboard Mengli Khan, a huge horse for a two-mile chaser who looks like he could be something special.
"He jumped well the last day," says Kennedy. "He has a very high cruising speed, he's really exciting, he'll be my Christmas treat on St Stephen's Day. He's a bit of a character, you saw him in the parade ring there today bucking and lepping, but he's exciting."
And Kennedy won't even have to dodge the turkey and mince pies in preparation for the race. "I'm lucky with my weight, it's a gift from God. I'm about 10 stone naturally so that's it. If I have to do a horse at 9st 12lb I can do it handy enough, I just eat normally. I know I'm very fortunate in that.
"I spoke to a dietician a few years ago, but that's when I was thinking of riding on the flat, but I just got too big to do nine stone. I was never going to make it, but I'm light enough to do the lower weights over the jumps. I was fortunate, too, in that I always wanted to be a jump jockey, but riding on the flat would have been nice for a while, but it just wasn't for me."
After a slow start to the season, Elliott is some half a million euro adrift of Willie Mullins in the race to be champion trainer, but having been overhauled with the winning post in sight in each of the last two years, he knows there is still a long way to go.
"I'm very lucky," reflects the trainer. "I've got good staff and good owners and good horses. But if you're going to train horses and you don't want to be champion trainer, you shouldn't be doing it. The horses weren't right for the first six weeks of the season so we're on the back foot. The horses are well now and they're running well.
"Last year (the narrow defeat) was probably easier, the year before was heartbreaking, you just want to go home and cry. People don't realise, everywhere you go you've got a camera in your face and people are asking you questions so you have to be careful what you say. Willie's an amazing man and until you cross the line with him you're never there. It's great to be in the same sentence as him and to be training the winners that we are, we're very lucky."
The rumour mill was churning out all sorts of rubbish during Elliott's slow start and it must have hurt. "I suppose it's a bit Irish that people want to knock you when you're going well. The horses weren't right, we took a pull, we publicised it, we'd a couple of vets here working with us, we tested all the horses, we checked everything and thankfully we got over it.
"It was a tough six weeks, we had to sit on our hands and we took a lot of pressure from . . . from the press . . . a lot of people talking shite, I'll say it as it is. But we got over it. We were straight with people. We were never going to train another winner and the whole place was going to shut down, if you were to listen to everyone.
"Thankfully I spent a week in France buying horses when most of it was going on so I only answered the phone to who I wanted to talk to. It just held us up completely, but I thought it was the right thing to do (to take things easy) for a couple of weeks."
Apple's Jade suffered a blip towards the back end of last term with successive defeats at Cheltenham and Punchestown. It was later put down to her coming into season, an issue which the vets are able to assure Elliott won't be a problem again.
For his part, Kennedy retains fond memories of his first Cheltenham winner aboard the reluctant Labaik. "It was magic, something I'd always dreamt of as a child and it was so unexpected."
More magic days are expected now, and it's a fair bet some of them will come aboard Apple's Jade.
Sunday Indo Sport