For the neutral fan, the news couldn’t have been better: Apple’s Jade is “likely” to contest the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham after a stunning 15-length victory in the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle last weekend. For months all the talk coming out of Gigginstown was that Apple’s Jade would once again contest the Mares’ Hurdle, in which she finished 3rd behind Benie Des Dieux and Midnight Tour. However, a change of heart has led Gordon Elliott to declare that it’s the likely option.
Why the change of heart? Two words – scintillating form. After a patchy end to last season, Apple’s Jade has looked every bit the superhorse this one, with perhaps only Altior looking as imperious in the last few months. Indeed, most pundits had been incredulous when they heard Gordon Elliott was still thinking of putting Apple’s Jade in the Mares’ Hurdle. But Elliott saw the light, and, as the man himself said, “We’d be mad not to give it a go”.
Pair tied at the top of the odds
So, that leaves us with the mouth-watering prospect of a showdown between Buveur D’Air and Apple’s Jade. The current Cheltenham betting odds from 888sport has the pair tied at 7/4 for the spoils, with Buveur D’Air’s price rising slightly and Apple’s Jade’s tightening after that brilliant 15-length victory. Buveur D’Air, going for a hat-trick of Champion Hurdles, was an easy winner on the same day in the 888sport Contenders Hurdle at Sandown.
Of course, that’s not to say the two heavyweights will have it their own way. Willie Mullins has also signalled that the unbeaten Laurina will go to the Champion Hurdle, with 7/2 odds quoted generally. The odds seem a little short, given the credentials of the leading pair in the market, but Mullins seems to have a firm belief his 6-year-old can give stout challenge.
Others who make up the potential field include: Sharjah (9/1), who has looked very good this season; Verdana Blue (10/1), who got the very rare scalp of Buveur D’Air over Christmas; Melon (12/1), who gave Buveur D’Air a decent battle when runner up in the Champion Hurdle last season. Any one of that trio could challenger for a place, yet it feels like they would need both Buveur D’Air and Apple’s Jade to have an off day.
A great rivalry has been lacking at the Festival
With all due respect to the rest of the field, the narrative before and, perhaps, after the race is going to be centred around the duo at the top of the betting markets. It feels like it could be the sort of rivalry that could light up the Festival, a race we could be talking about years from now. Is that somewhat overselling it? Maybe. But it’s been a while since we have seen two horses carrying such form ready to go against each other at one of the feature races of the Festival. It seems like the ones we hoped for in recent years – Douvan vs Altior, Buveur D’Air vs Faugheen – never really materialised.
So, to the pertinent question: Who is going to win? It looks very difficult to call between the pair. It seems every year that there is an assumption that Buveur D’Air will finally be trumped, but then we all end up looking foolish as Nicky Henderson’s horse racks up yet another big victory. However, there hasn’t been a challenger looking quite as formidable as Apple’s Jade. This could be a changing of the guard moment.