Gordon Elliott feels he has “nothing to lose” by giving star mare Apple’s Jade a shot at the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle.
The Gigginstown House Stud-owned seven-year-old has enjoyed a faultless season so far, winning her second Lismullen Hurdle at Navan and her third Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse, before successfully defending her crown with a dominant display in Leopardstown’s Christmas Hurdle.
She is dropping from three to two miles on her return to Foxrock this weekend – her first start over the minimum distance since being touched off by Irving in the 2016 Fighting Fifth at Newcastle – but will nevertheless be a hot favourite to claim her 14th victory from 20 career starts.
Elliott said: “She’s in very good form, and we’re very happy with her. Her work has been very good this year – she’s really enjoying herself and she seems to be getting better with age.
“It is a bit of a worry coming back to two miles – she’s so effective over two and a half and three – but we’ll give it a go.
“It’s an Irish Champion Hurdle, and we’ve nothing to lose by having a go at it.
“If it doesn’t work she’s more than likely going to go for the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.”
Apple’s Jade is one of four Gigginstown representatives, along with stable companions Farclas and Tombstone and Henry de Bromhead’s 2017 Irish Champion Hurdle winner Petit Mouchoir.
Willie Mullins has saddled a record six previous winners of this prestigious event, with the great Hurricane Fly’s five consecutive successes between 2011 and 2015 followed by Faugheen’s triumph three years ago.
This time around the champion trainer relies on Melon, who finished runner-up to Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last March and is expected to improve significantly from his comeback run when fourth behind stablemate Sharjah in the Ryanair Hurdle at this venue.
Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, said: “Melon is in good form, and we think he’ll strip a lot fitter for his run at Christmas.
“However, Apple’s Jade won a Grade One over two miles in Aintree by 41 lengths when we had her, so I’m not sure she’s going to be any easier to beat over two miles than she would be over two-and-a-half or three.
“She’s a top-class mare, and I think Melon will probably have to better his run behind Buveur D’Air to beat her.”
The Jessica Harrington-trained Supasundae got the better of odds-on favourite Faugheen to claim last year’s renewal, and is back to defend his title.
The Galileo gelding has been beaten by Apple’s Jade on each of the three times they have met – most recently finishing 20 lengths behind when runner-up in the Hatton’s Grace.
However, he improved to finish second in the Ryanair Hurdle last time, and Harrington is hoping her charge can at least close the gap on Elliott’s mare this weekend.
“He has always come on from the first couple of runs he has,” said the Moone-based trainer.
“He’s a very stuffy horse at home and he’s just hard enough to get fit, so I’m hoping that he will have come on again.
“It depends how the race unfolds. If they go a really good gallop he’s got a good chance of staying on. He does stay very well, and that would play into his hands.”