Apple’s Jade and Benie Des Dieux engage in what promises to be a fascinating rematch for the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Annie Power Mares Champion Hurdle at Punchestown on Saturday.
Apple’s Jade was a dominant winner of the Grade One contest 12 months ago and has stretched her top-level tally to seven this season with victories in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse and the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown.
However, Gordon Elliott’s mare could only finish third behind the Willie Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux when defending her crown in last month’s Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and the pair lock horns again on a potentially pivotal final day of the Festival.
Elliott has a second string to his bow in Barra, while Benie Des Dieux is joined by no less than six stablemates including Augusta Kate and Let’s Dance.
Splitting Benie Des Dieux and Apple’s Jade at Cheltenham was Alan King’s Midnight Tour, who makes the journey from Britain to also feature in this 12-strong field.
The line-up is completed by Jessica Harrington’s Forge Meadow and Jer’s Girl from Gavin Cromwell’s yard.
The latter was only fifth at Cheltenham, but is a Grade One winner at Punchestown.
Cromwell said: “She seems in good order and we’ll let her take her chance.
“She obviously has a lot of ground to make up with a few of them, but we’re happy with her and hopefully she has a place chance.”
The final Grade One contest of the week, the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle, is made up entirely of runners from the Elliott and Mullins yards.
Setting the standard is Elliott’s Farclas following his clear-cut success in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Elliott said: “He has improved nicely with each run and seems to have come out of Cheltenham well.”
Mitchouka and Fred Winter victor Veneer Of Charm are the other Elliott representatives, while Mullins launches a six-strong assault.
His main three contenders are Triumph Hurdle runner-up Mr Adjudicator, Triumph faller Stormy Ireland and Saglawy, an impressive recent winner at Fairyhouse.
Msassa, Saldier and Eoline Jolie are the other runners declared by the reigning champion trainer in a race that could be of huge interest should the season-long title race still be in the balance.