Apple’s Jade gets the nod in what promises to be an enthralling renewal of the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The two-mile showpiece is the centrepiece on a fantastic opening afternoon in the Cotswolds, and it is difficult to look beyond the three at the top of the market.
Considering he is already a dual winner of the race, the public have never really latched on to Nicky Henderson’s Buveur D’Air – but that will surely change if he can become the first three-time winner since the great Istabraq.
However, he suffered a shock defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, was not all that impressive at Sandown on his latest appearance – and in conceding 7lb to two top-class mares, he appears to face the toughest test of his career to date.
The Willie Mullins-trained Laurina is very much the unknown quantity. The daughter of Spanish Moon is unbeaten in six starts for her current connections and was tremendously impressive against novice mares at last year’s Festival.
She is clearly held in the highest regard, but this represents a huge step up in class.
On the other hand, Apple’s Jade, trained by Gordon Elliott, has both met and beaten the boys on numerous occasions, including on each of her four starts this season.
She won the two-and-half-mile Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse by 20 lengths and the three-mile Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown by 26 lengths before switching back to two miles for a 16-length demolition job in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
Those victories have advertised her remarkable versatility and the fact she is better than ever.
If she turns up at Prestbury Park in the same form as she has been all season, she should prove very hard to beat.
The 2019 Cheltenham Festival gets under way with the traditional curtain-raiser –the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
This year’s renewal appears particularly wide-open, with several horses holding strong claims. The vote goes to Aramon, who bids to provide Mullins with a fourth victory in the last seven runnings of the two-mile contest.
Although not as flashy as the trainer’s two most recent winners, Vautour (2014) and Douvan (2015), Aramon is officially the highest-rated runner in the field after three successive efforts at Grade One level.
He shaped encouragingly to finish third in a slowly-run Royal Bond at Fairyhouse before producing a smart display in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown. The six-year-old returned to the Dublin circuit to finish a narrow second to stablemate Klassical Dream in another top-level contest, and might well have won again but for hanging under pressure on the run-in.
A fast-run two miles should suit him ideally, and he looks a solid bet to make the frame at least at double-figure odds.
Glen Forsa is fancied to emerge triumphant in a similarly-competitive Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy.
Lalor was brilliant when winning here in November, but returns with something to prove after disappointing on his next start at Sandown.
The Mick Channon-trained Glen Forsa lines up in the form of his life following three successive wins, most recently producing an exhibition round of jumping in the re-scheduled Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Sandown. If he can dominate in front again he will take some pegging back.
Give Me A Copper holds strong claims in the Ultima Handicap Chase for Paul Nicholls.
It was impossible not to be taken by his hugely encouraging comeback run at Sandown, and that should leave him cherry-ripe.
With Apple’s Jade and Laurina not in the field, last year’s winner Benie Des Dieux should prove a different class to her rivals in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
The fact she has not run this season is of little concern, given her trainer’s previous exploits with the remarkable Quevega.
Henry de Bromhead’s A Plus Tard could be the answer to the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, while the Paul Nolan-trained Discorama can provide the Irish with another winner in the National Hunt Chase.