Our expert takes a look through the talented field in the Mares’ Champion Hurdle and tips a returning champion to land another Punchestown Festival champion.
The final day of festivities at Ireland’s premier jumps meeting begins to reach a crescendo on Saturday afternoon, when some of the top mares in the world take to the track at the Punchestown Festival. Just like most other Grade 1 mares’ contests on the National Hunt calendar, Willie Mullins has dominated the roll of honour in recent years, winning the title five times in the last seven renewals.
There is a slim chance Annie Power, who won this title in 2014 and 2015, could return from injury with an outing in this race. If she is fit enough to appear at Punchestown, the Champion Hurdle may be Mullins’ preferred target, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if she lined up alongside her female counterparts at the Festival.
All eyes were on Limini last year when she looked to follow up her victory in the Mares’ Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham with a maiden Grade 1 victory. As the favourite struggled for fluency over her jumps, 16/1 shot Whiteout came from the pack to land a surprise Punchestown title. Mullins’ six-year-old hadn’t shown any kind of form before that massive victory and it’s been the same story so far this season. It will be extremely difficult for the champion to defend her title.
Apple’s Jade was largely overlooked at Cheltenham. Despite winning the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and running well in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, a resounding defeat to Limini in the Listed Quevega Hurdle lead to Gordon Elliott’s charge being written off at a potential Cheltenham Champion.
Yet, to many people’s surprise, the two-time Grade 1 winner dictated the pace at the front of the field and held off two charging pink and green-clad challengers on either side to secure the biggest win of her short career.
Limini took the tag of favouritism to the post with her at Cheltenham, ahead of defending champion Vroum Vroum Mag. Although neither of Mullins’ mares was quick enough to catch Apple’s Jade that day, Vroum Vroum Mag’s narrow runner-up finish could be seen as an encouraging result.
Since losing her unbeaten streak to Apple’s Jade in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, the eight-year-old has looked far from her imperious best – labouring to what should have been routine victories at Leopardstown and Doncaster before she returned to the Cheltenham Festival. This could be her last appearance over hurdles before embarking upon a staying chasing career next season, so Mullins will be desperate for his charge to end this campaign on a high.
Pravalaguna looks set to be the third Mullins’ trained mare to feature in this contest, despite still carrying novice status. The five-year-old won on her maiden outing over jumps, but was soundly beaten by many of her fellow novice mares on her following outing at Fairyhouse. She dropped back to two miles to mix it with the boys on her latest appearance and was travelling well enough to win before falling at the second last obstacle.
Philip Kirby looks set to send Lady Buttons over to Punchestown to pit her wits against the headline acts. The seven-year-old has won well in her last three appearances, including over this two-and-a-half mile trip at Southwell, but this will be a huge jump in class and it’s unlikely she will have the quality to challenge.
Rock On The Moor has so far failed to build on the strong runner-up finish she recorded behind Vroum Vroum Mag in the 2016 Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. She’s laboured to distant finishes in good quality races all season and crossed the line over 50 lengths behind the winners on her return to the Cheltenham Festival last month.
Another ding-dong battle between Apple’s Jade and Vroum Vroum Mag will be expected and Punchestown. After defeating her rival on two occasions already this season, Gordon Elliott will fancy Apple’s Jade’s chances of conquering her championship rival for a third time.
That being said, both are unlikely to offer much value at the head of the betting and a chance could be taken on JER’S GIRL upstaging her fellow females and landing a second huge title here at the Punchestown Festival.
Gavin Cromwell will have been gutted to see Jer’s Girl take a tumble at Cheltenham. She’s shown very little form this season - finishing a distant second to Nichols Canyon before tailing home as the final finisher at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival - but she looked much more comfortable up against her own sex and was travelling extremely comfortably coming into the home straight before clipping the top of the third-last hurdle and crashing to the canvas.
She enjoyed a highly-successful spring campaign last year, winning a Grade 1 mares’ title at Fairyhouse before coming to Punchestown and landing the Champion Novice Hurdle crown. Jer’s Girl is clearly a very talented mare and her trainer will be hopeful the good spring ground, along with a return to the scene of her greatest achievement to date, will be enough to see the five-year-old return to the Punchestown Festival winners’ enclosure.
29/4/2017 3:50pm Punchestown Mares’ Champion Hurdle selection – JER’S GIRL