WATCH: 'She seems to be getting better' - Apple's Jade lands Hatton's Grace Hurdle in style
Apple's Jade produced a brilliant front-running display to successfully defend her crown in the Bar One Racing Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse.
The Gigginstown House Stud-owned mare claimed her first victory after joining Gordon Elliott when seeing off former stablemate Vroum Vroum Mag in a thrilling renewal 12 months ago and was the even-money favourite to strike Grade One gold for the sixth time in her career.
Jack Kennedy sent the five-year-old straight to the lead, with Willie Mullins-trained Stayers' Hurdle hero Nichols Canyon always her closest pursuer as he went in search of a ninth win at the top level under Paul Townend.
The pair rounded the home turn almost as one, but Apple's Jade soon stamped her authority on the contest, pulling right away between the final two flights and safely negotiated the last to cap a hugely impressive performance.
Kennedy said: "Unreal - she's some mare. She jumped and travelled great and I was always confident on her.
"She seems to be getting better. She's a lot stronger this year.
"She's not slow, but she stays galloping and is able to gallop them into the ground over that (two-and-a-half-mile) trip."
Apple's Jade is likely to be a warm order to win the Mares' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival for the second successive year, but asked whether he felt she could compete in a Champion Hurdle against the boys, Kennedy added: "I've never ridden a Champion Hurdler, so I wouldn't know, but she's definitely one of the best I've ridden."
Elliott soon quashed any notion his star mare could run in the Champion Hurdle, stressing the OLBG Mares' Hurdle - for which she was cut to 6-4 favourite from 5-2 with RaceBets - would be the target in March.
He said: "She looked class, to be honest. We thought she was a lot stronger at home. She's like a bull and Jack gave her a great ride.
"I was always taught to win the race you can win, so the mares' race will be the one I'll go for, all being well.
"She's only five years of age and she's six Grade Ones won. She's a different mare at home this than she was last year.
"The way she kept pulling it out, you'd have to be nothing but impressed with her."
Looking to more immediate plans, the trainer added: "We will give her a bit of a break now and she might go back to Punchestown for the race she got beaten in last year (Quevega Mares Hurdle in February).
"The Mares' Hurdle (at Cheltenham) is the plan and then Punchestown (Festival). If we mind her we might get a few years out of her."