Judged by Betfair SP, Apple’s Jade was the shortest-priced loser of the jumps season thus far in the Lismullen Hurdle on Sunday when turned over at 1.23 and there were few if any positives can be drawn from her return.
I’m no body language expert but Gordon Elliott hardly looked enthusiastic in his post-race interview and could offer no excuses for her run, a scope returning clean (she had a breathing operation over the summer so perhaps this was a concern) and the IHRB vet’s examination producing a ‘post-race normal’ verdict, her jockey reporting that she lacked ‘zest.’
Elliott went on to say that she is a ‘horse of a lifetime and doesn’t owe use anything’ which felt like a valediction but when asked about her participation in the Hatton’s Grace next month responded with his trademark ‘def-fin-night-ly.’ It’s the Gigginstown and Elliott way not to overplay one bad run, a policy that has served both well, but Apple’s Jade is now on a four-race slump and it is hard to have much faith in a bounce-back effort at Fairyhouse.
This is typically Apple’s Jade’s time of year, her figures in November and December since arriving with Elliott reading an impressive:2211111112 so this was a run that doesn’t at all fit in with her form cycle.
Furthermore, it was Bacardys who beat her, a horse that hasn’t won since the 2017 Punchestown Festival, allowing that he has been set some tough tasks in that time. Maybe he’s improved – but that seems unlikely on the balance of probabilities – and best-case-scenario he might have hit the low-150s here which puts Apple’s Jade in the low- to mid-140s, about 20 pounds shy of her best.
Last season was tough for Apple’s Jade. She had seven races, peaking (on the clock at least) in both the Hatton’s Grace and the Irish Champion Hurdle (Leopardstown edition) before flopping at Cheltenham and being well below her best at Aintree and Punchestown. Taking in the big three spring festivals is a tough ask when a horse is in top form, a tougher ask when out of form.
None of this is to denigrate Apple’s Jade or her connections who should be praised for their aggressive campaigning. She is a brilliant race-mare, one of only six (the others being J’y Vole, Voler La Vedette, Quevega, Annie Power and Ma Filleule) this decade in the UK and Ireland to reach an official rating of 160 of higher, and she won more Grade 1 races than any of them, eight of her 10 top-level wins coming against geldings.
But sentiment and respect for her legacy might mean she is sent off too short for her next start at Fairyhouse. Voler La Vedette in 2012 edition of the Hatton’s Grace could be a suitable comparison as after an excellent 2011/12 season that included three wins and a pair of runner-up efforts at open Grade 1s, she simply didn’t come back the same mare, beaten in the Lismullen Hurdle at 1/7 before finishing a disappointing third of five at Fairyhouse.
The most recent Champion Bumper looked one of the harder Festival races to evaluate at the end of the season, having attracted just 14 runners when fields of 20-plus are typical and balloting not uncommon. There was just one Willie Mullins runner – a good one admittedly in the eventual runner-up Blue Sari – when he had five in 2018, two in 2017 and seven in 2016.
Mullins hadn’t run many bumper debutantes in the second half of last season, just 17 in all from the start of December through the end of Punchestown when he had run 30 in the same period during the previous campaign.
Just two of those 17 won, Mullins drawing a rare blank at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting in bumpers, and while there were some good prospects in there like Allaho, The Big Getaway and Monkfish, there was a sense that Mullins was holding back due to the ground, something the trainer has seemingly confirmed lately when saying he has a backlog of horses for bumpers and maiden hurdles.
Any concerns about the worth of that Champion Bumper have been allayed in the past few weeks however. Envoi Allen was flawless on hurdling debut at Down Royal, posting some fast closing sectionals in the process, while the third Thyme Hill won a Grade 2 first time over hurdles, the fourth Abacadabras barely needing to come of the bridle to take the For Auction at Navan on Sunday.
Some of the other Irish horses that tied in indirectly with the form from their runs in graded bumpers at Leopardstown and Punchestown have also done their bit for last season’s crop, the likes of Beacon Edge and Embittered winning first time of asking over hurdles.
The best long-term prospect doesn’t always win the Champion Bumper as horses imporve at different rates but Envoi Allen has to be rated the best until proven otherwise, especially as he wouldn’t have looked the most obvious bumper type at the time, his yard seemingly preferring Malone Road for the Cheltenham race in the early part of the winter.
Blue Sari remains one whose return is eagerly-awaited, especially as he had lots of scope having had just two career runs, while the Joseph O’Brien-trained Cheltenham sixth Sempo is another to look out for. Things didn’t go entirely his way there as he struggled to get over and travelled as well as anything.