Apple’s Jade will aim to provide Gordon Elliott with a first win in the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on Tuesday.
Elliott has risen to the top of his profession in a short time and was leading trainer at the meeting 12 months ago – but he would love a Champion Hurdle trophy to stand alongside that of Don Cossack’s Gold Cup.
After Samcro’s early-season defeats it seemed a long shot that Elliott would break his duck this year, but Apple’s Jade’s victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle saw connections switch her from the mares’ race to the opening-day highlight.
“I was nervous before the Dublin Racing Festival. Everyone was telling me – people you respect in racing and press people – that she could win a Champion Hurdle,” said Elliott.
“I have to say myself that I didn’t know if she could show the pace she showed in Leopardstown.
“She just showed how good she is. She was awesome the last day and has been awesome all season. I think the Hatton’s Grace was arguably her best run of the year.
“If she wins a Champion Hurdle she’ll be a hero. She’s a hero in my eyes already, but if she could do that she’d be something special.
“She’s proven how good she is – she’s won 10 Grade Ones – and if she went and won a Champion Hurdle it would be the icing on the cake.”
Laurina is the second Irish-trained mare out to dethrone dual champion Buveur D’Air.
Her trainer Willie Mullins – who saddled the last mare to win the Champion Hurdle in Annie Power (2016) – feels Laurina is coming of age having recently turned six.
“She’s a very, very good mare. This has been the goal all along. We just haven’t had the ground for her, which is why she hasn’t run much,” said the Closutton handler.
“She’s a different type of mare to Annie Power. They’re both tall, rangy mares, but they’ve got different temperaments.
“Laurina’s temperament has changed dramatically since last year. She was a bit on the excitable side, but she has settled down hugely this year.”
Mullins also saddles last year’s runner-up Melon and the improving Sharjah.
The latter has won the Morgiana Hurdle and the Ryanair Hurdle on his two most recent starts and the trainer’s son, Patrick, keeps the ride.
He said: “I’m delighted to keep the ride on Sharjah. It looks a red-hot race and Buveur D’Air, Apple’s Jade and Laurina are all high-class horses.
“My horse has been impressive in Punchestown and Leopardstown and has a lot of speed.
“I just hope there’s not too much rain as he’s definitely a better horse on better ground.”
Nicky Henderson reports Buveur D’Air to be in tip-top condition as he bids to become the sixth horse to record three successive victories.
Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq have all achieved that feat, and Buveur D’Air could add his name to that exclusive list.
“I think I would be comfortable to say he is as good as we have had him all year,” said Henderson, who has maximum respect for the opposition, in particular Apple’s Jade and Laurina.
“Barry (Geraghty) came and schooled him and then rode him in a bit of work last week and thought he felt great – sometimes he tells me he doesn’t.
“It would be great if he could do it as he would join history if he could. I do think it is more competitive than last year, but I don’t think he was right last year.
“Our two biggest problems are undoubtedly the two Irish mares and they are getting 7lb. If the ground goes soft it will suit Buveur D’Air, but it will also suit Apple’s Jade and Laurina.
“Nothing changes on that front. Buveur D’Air has been in good form, but I am frightened of the two mares. I think Laurina might be the slower of the two and in that case Apple’s Jade is the one we have to beat.”
Henderson also saddles Verdana Blue and Brain Power.
“Verdana Blue did beat Buveur D’Air on fast ground at Kempton, but you will see a big turnaround on that,” said the Seven Barrows handler.
“Brain Power could be second best of our three. He could be a good little each-way bet.
“He was very good in the International and we have not run him since on purpose. They are not pacemakers, but that is not say they won’t go on if they have to.”
Buveur D’Air’s owner JP McManus has a second string to his bow in Espoir D’Allen.
The five-year-old has won all his three starts this term and his trainer Gavin Cromwell expects to be in the picture.
“All is good and we’re really looking forward to it,” said Cromwell.
“Hopefully he can give a good account of himself.
“It’s obviously his biggest ask, but I think he’ll run a big race.”