Apple’s Jade raised the roof at Leopardstown with a third straight win in the Frank Ward Memorial Hurdle.
Gordon Elliott’s star mare had been well below her best for most of 2019, but there was late confidence in the market that she would return to something like the sparkling form she showed in the first half of last season and she was sent off the 6-4 joint-favourite with Bacardys.
Despite giving ground away by repeatedly jumping out to her right, Jack Kennedy kicked on a mile from home and Killultagh Vic could no longer live with her.
Unowhatimeanharry and Penhill tried to close running to the last, but Apple’s Jade had plenty left in reserve to win at the highest level for the 11th time, triumphing by 17 lengths.
Despite her fine record, Apple’s Jade arrived with questions to answer and owner Michael O’Leary later confirmed she would have likely been retired had she not won.
She had disappointed in the Champion Hurdle in March and was also beaten at Aintree and Punchestown.
In previous seasons, her best form had always come in the first half of the campaign, but when she was beaten in the Lismullen Hurdle and the Hatton’s Grace this term, Elliott was left scratching his head.
However, back at her favourite track, where she is unbeaten, she showed the fire still burns brightly.
“If she hadn’t run well today, she was going to be retired,” said O’Leary.
“She jumped really well today – she was jumping out to her right, but she was making ground at her hurdles and seemed really keen.
“She was very lifeless at Fairyhouse and in Navan, which isn’t like her. It looks like she’s back, which is great.
“It’s great for Gordon and it was a great training performance. Today is a great bonus, it’s wonderful to see her back and I’d imagine she’ll come back here in February.”
Despite her return to winning ways, O’Leary cooled talk of a trip to the Cheltenham Festival.
He added: “I can’t imagine she’d go to Cheltenham. If she had one more bad run she was getting retired, but if she runs like that and jumps like that, we’ll keep going.
“She’ll tell us herself – she’s like all ladies when they decide they’ve had enough, they’ve had enough.”
Elliott was able to breath a huge sigh of relief after a horse who has done so much for his career returned to form.
“If she didn’t win today she was being retired, so she obviously knew and pulled it out of the bag again,” said Elliott.
“I wasn’t liking the way she was jumping. She was jumping well but going a little bit right.
“I was delighted to see the horses coming up and taking her on the whole way. I asked Jack if it made a difference and he said no.
“He said just going to the start she felt different than she’s felt all year.
“Keith Donoghue has brought her out hunting, we put cheekpieces on her and took the cross noseband off. I don’t know what’s done it to be honest.
“I’d still say her work wasn’t as good as what it was, but hopefully she’ll get as big a kick out of that as we did and she might be back.
“I was just delighted to see her winning, it’s unbelievable.”
He went on: “I’ll have a talk to Michael and Eddie (O’Leary, racing manager) and the whole team and see what we do now. We’ll enjoy today anyway.
“She doesn’t owe us anything and whatever she does now is a bonus.
“She’s been competing at the top end since she was three years of age and it’s hard to keep doing it.
“She’s the horse of a lifetime and for her to do that today was just special.
“She’s five from five here and I wouldn’t mind having a few more like her.”