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Published 12th February
What was looking a rather uninspiring Champion Hurdle – as much as there can be such a thing – only a few weeks ago is now potentially the contest of the meeting, with a dual winner of the race in Buveur D’Air being taken on by a brilliant mare in Apple’s Jade and a potentially top-class one in Laurina.
Throw in another very good mare in Verdana Blue, the upwardly mobile multiple winner Sharjah, and a large handful of smart performers who may be allowed to chance their luck, and you have all the makings of a barnstormer.
There can be only one winner, however, and the identity of that winner is most likely to be APPLE’S JADE, in my opinion.
The reasoning is as follows: her four wins out of four this term, all by in excess of 10 lengths, have clearly identified her as out of the top drawer, with her Hatton’s Grace triumph at Fairyhouse in December and Irish Champion Hurdle success at Leopardstown in February being backed up by top-notch times; her effectiveness at the Champion Hurdle trip of two miles, which was never in much doubt, was emphatically proved by the latter success, in which she pasted the previous year’s winner Supasundae by 16 lengths; and she goes from the front, and keeps going, meaning that she is not beholden to the tactics of others.
Contrary to what you might occasionally read, time analysis can be extremely valuable over jumps, where seemingly impressive performances may otherwise lack context. Apple’s Jade’s win in that Irish Champion Hurdle came in a time fully 5.2s quicker than that of the 151-rated handicapper Off You Go in the next race and 1.5s quicker than the top bumper performer Envoi Allen (who had no obstacles to negotiate) elsewhere on the card.
Even after you allow for the fact that the hurdlers omitted two flights, and sectionals which show that the handicap was steadily-run, it all adds up to a knockout performance by Apple’s Jade: I have a 169 timefigure on her, and that would be good enough to win a Champion Hurdle proper as often as not.
Apple's Jade wins the Hatton's Grace by 20 lengths.
Buveur D’Air would have his work cut out to make it three Champion Hurdles in a row even if he were meeting Apple’s Jade at level weights, but the mare will be receiving a 7 lb sex allowance on 12 March.
The gelding’s two Champion Hurdle wins were achieved in somewhat contrasting style. The 2017 one was comprehensive, by four and a half lengths from My Tent Or Yours and with a 168 timefigure, but he scrambled home 12 months ago by a neck from Melon with just a 159 performance.
Melon has not won in three races since, or even run all that well in the last two of them, finishing over 20 lengths behind Apple’s Jade last time.
Buveur D’Air has won two of three in that time, impressing in slamming the much-vaunted Samcro in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle (another 168 performance once sectionals are allowed for), but being nailed near the line by stable-companion Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton then gaining a bloodless success over three other finishers in a listed contest at Sandown.
The showdown between him and Apple’s Jade is made all the more fascinating by the contrast in their styles. Buveur D’Air is quick, even by Champion Hurdle standards: I had him at 35.7 mph in the closing stages of the Fighting Fifth. Apple’s Jade grinds her rivals into submission from a long way out: her closing sectional at Leopardstown last time implied a speed of 32.7 mph. The epee and the broadsword.
A well-run Champion Hurdle, as seems probable with Apple’s Jade in attendance, is likely to suit Laurina, who has a ground-devouring stride but quite a slow turnover, typical of a two-and-a-half miler. Her form lacks a bit of substance – her 18-length romp at last year’s Cheltenham Festival came against second-raters – but the impression is that she could be very good indeed. She will need to be, and some.
Sharjah is another “epee” type. He quickened smartly to win the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown and the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown on his two most recent starts, though the fact that he beat Supasundae and Melon by over a dozen lengths less than Apple’s Jade managed a few weeks later provides some context.
Verdana Blue could come into the reckoning if the Champion Hurdle ends up as a sit-and-pounce affair – unlikely – though it should be remembered that she was only fourth in a handicap on the course two starts back. Testing conditions would likely scupper her chances altogether.
Testing conditions might, however, help Apple’s Jade, who once beat a reigning Triumph Hurdle winner by 41 lengths on soft at Aintree. But she does not need the mud whatsoever, as her recent efforts on primarily “good” going show.
For me, the biggest danger to Apple’s Jade’s winning hurdle racing’s blue riband is not Buveur D’Air or any other individual rival but the reluctance of her owner – Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary – to run her in the race.
Those objections seem to have been dispelled. O’Leary could well be flying back to Ireland with the “excess baggage” of a Champion Hurdle trophy in March.
Verdict: win APPLE’S JADE (non-runner, no bet)