Neville Ring: Apples Jade can face down Willie Mullins' four-pronged attack in Mares' Champion Hurdle at Punchestown
WILLIE Mullins will send four runners into battle against Apple’s Jade in this afternoon’s €100,000 Mares’ Champion Hurdle, one of two Grade 1 races on the final day of Punchestown.
Despite the defection of Annie Power, the Closutton handler fields a strong hand in the seven-runner contest, with Ruby Walsh interestingly opting for the less exposed Karalee over her much more experienced stablemates.
The six-year-old faces a big step up in class, but bolted up on her latest appearance at Limerick and was supplemented for this race.
Mullins also saddles Augusta Kate (Paul Townend), who won a Grade One prize at Fairyhouse a fortnight ago, as well as last year’s winner Whiteout (David Mullins) and Airlie Beach, who is reunited with Danny Mullins for the first time since winning the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse in December.
But Apple’s Jade undoubtedly sets a very high standard. The former Mullins inmate has won the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse and the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham since joining Gordon Elliott and boasts a rating of 154. With no penalties here, she has a comfortable 9lb plus in hand of her rivals. It’s tempting to nominate Karalee as her danger.
Elliott, who will be hoping to seal his first trainer’s title, has also declared Barra. The seven-strong line-up is completed by Phil Kirby’s British challenger Lady Buttons, who has won her last three handicaps but faces a much tougher test on this visit.
With Defi Du Seuil enjoying his summer holidays, Mega Fortune and Bapaume get the chance to settle their season-long argument in the AES Champion Hurdle for four-year-olds.
Willie Mullins’ Bapaume came out on top when the pair met at Christmas in the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown. The show moved back to Leopardstown in February for the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle where, on better ground, Elliott’s Mega Fortune turned the tables in no uncertain terms.
It was then on to the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham where, while no match for Defi Du Seuil, Mega Fortune finished second, with Bapaume a short head away in third.
In a week when Elliott and Mullins have been going at it hammer and tongs, this race is another that really sums up their battle.
Elliott said of Mega Fortune: “I was very happy with him at Cheltenham, he just bumped into a better one on the day.
“I think he’s fine on better ground, but could be an awful lot more effective on softer ground. It would be a worry that Punchestown might not suit him as well as at Cheltenham given how well he stays, but we’ll make plenty use of him.”
Elliott also runs Dinaria Des Obeaux, but she looks up against it having finished only fourth behind Project Bluebook at Fairyhouse recently.
Mullins admitted that he expected a bit more from Bapaume in the Triumph Hurdle.
He said: “I thought he might run a little bit better than he did at Cheltenham, but he still ran a good race. Hopefully he can find some improvement.”
The trainer also saddles Meri Devie and Dandy Mag, second behind Project Bluebook at Fairyhouse.
Meri Devie created a big impression when winning on her hurdling debut at Leopardstown, beating the smart Flat recruit Housesofparliament. She was no back number on the level herself, finishing just over four lengths behind Jemayel in the Prix Saint-Alary, and Mullins felt she did not run to the best of her ability when fourth to Mega Fortune in February.
Meri Devie arrives at Punchestown fresh and could be a major player now under David Mullins having missed Cheltenham with a minor setback.
Joseph O’Brien runs Landofhopeandglory, fifth in the Triumph, with the field completed by Michael Mulvany’s On The Go Again.
There’s a 25-strong field for the two-and-a-half mile Ballymore Handicap Hurdle. Willie Mullins runs nine including the quartet at the head of the weights.
I thought the best of his team might be Livelovelaugh but Townend rides this one with Ruby plumping for Bonbon Au Miel, last seen when winning cleverly at Cork in March.
Livelovelaugh ran quite well in the Neptune; there appeared no fancy for him at Fairyhouse when fourth behind Al Boum Photo but in his first handicap he might show a bit more.
There are two handicap chases, the stronger of which is the Pat Taaffe Memorial in which Rogue Trader and Hash Brown give JP McManus a nice interest against the likes of Solstice Son and the Crafty Butcher.
Ballyboker Bridge might hold his stable-mate Mtada Supreme in the opening hunters while the three-mile-six-furlong chase could go to Dare the Endeavour.