Every year, we hear the same rumours that certain horses are “festival bankers”. This year is no different, with 4 favourites on the Tuesday all supposedly “banker material”. However, it has paid in the past to try to pick holes in these favourites and identify reasons that it may be better to oppose them.
Apples Jade is a difficult one. Since winning this race last year, she has looked fairly bulletproof with 4 wins from 4 subsequent starts (3 of them in grade one company). However, the only real question mark over her is that she will go into the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham after a break of 75 days.
Apples Jade has won 10 times from 14 starts over hurdles. Three of her four losses do have something in common. The first came at Cheltenham in the 2016 Triumph Hurdle when she came 2nd behind Ivanovich Gorbatov. Interestingly, this came after a break of 83 days (she hadn’t run since Leopardstown over Christmas). After this, she went on to win two successive races at the end of the season at Aintree and Punchestown. In hindsight, one would wonder whether she needed the run at Cheltenham to shake off the cobwebs.
In the 2015/16 season, she made her seasonal debut at Down Royal following a break of 188 days. She was beaten into 2nd that day behind Rashaan in what was probably the most disappointing performance of her career. She ran again just 3 weeks later in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, finishing 2nd behind Irving. Again, she was the beaten favourite, but after this shorter break her performance was far better than on her seasonal debut. Yet again, one would wonder whether she needed the break to shake off the cobwebs.
After another quick turnaround, she ran in the Hattons Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in early December and won (narrowly beating Vroum Vroum Mag). This was to be her last start for 80 days, until she ran at Punchestown in late February. Again, she was beaten after a break, finishing 2 lengths behind Limini. However, just a couple of weeks later she would go on to reverse this form at the Cheltenham Festival, and finished off the season with another win at Punchestown.
This season has been slightly different. Her first start of the season came at Navan in November and she did win despite the break of 197 days. She probably still improved from that start to the next, winning the Hattons Grace for a second consecutive year before winning at Leopardstown over Christmas.
Despite having been beaten following a break after Christmas in each of the last two years, the decision has been made to run fresh at Cheltenham. However, her form after a break of over 50 days now reads 12221, compared to 11211111 after a shorter period off the track.
While opposition looked scarce, Willie Mullins announced last week that 2016 winner Vroum Vroum Mag will in fact return to the race this year, hoping to reverse the form with Apples Jade from last year’s race.
Vroum Vroum Mag has won 7 times from 11 starts over hurdles – however, she has also won once from 4 starts in bumpers and has a perfect record of 6 wins from 6 chase starts. We’ll ignore 6 of these starts (her first 6 runs in bumpers and over hurdles in France) and focus on her career since moving to Willie Mullins’ yard.
She was unbeaten in her first two seasons with Mullins, the second of which culminated in a victory in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Punchestown Champion Hurdle a few weeks later in April 2016. She then faced a long break and wasn’t seen for 219 days before running in the Hattons Grace at Fairyhouse. She was beaten that day by Apples Jade but ran more or less to form. She went on to win the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown and the grade 2 Mares’ Hurdle at Doncaster at the end of January before heading to the 2017 Cheltenham Festival to be beaten by Apples Jade again. After that, she was 6/4 favourite for the Punchestown Champion Hurdle but was well beaten in 7th – her first ever real underperformance. It later emerged that she had been injured.
Throughout this season, it has been unclear whether Vroum Vroum Mag would stay in training or go to be covered. The decision has been made to run her at Cheltenham, but having her covered is still considered a strong option later on in the season. Mullins’ comments were simply, “She’s in great shape. I didn’t think we’d get her back. She hasn’t been covered yet, but we have plenty of time and she could well be later in the year.”
Of course, if Apples Jade is expected to need the run then the same should be said for Vroum Vroum Mag. However, a look through her past form wouldn’t suggest that there’s any real history of needing a run – she seems to perform to the same standard when fresh as she does when she has run recently. Coming here without having run this season may seem like a negative, but Mullins is more than capable of getting a horse fit and ready for the big day without running them that season. Quevega won this race in 2011, 2013 and 2014 without having run earlier in the season, while Arctic Fire won the County Hurdle without having seen a racecourse last season. Overall at the Cheltenham festival, Mullins has had 4 wins and a place from 11 runners which had yet to run that season.