So much of the history of this race revolves around six-time heroine Quevega (2009-14), and her trainer Willie Mullins has kept up the good work since with Glen’s Melody, who benefited from the last flight fall of Annie Power in 2015, and Vroum Vroum Mag a year later.
However, the Mullins stranglehold was broken last year when Gordon Elliott’s Apple’s Jade rallied to beat the defending champion and Limini, the winner of the mares’ novice at the previous Festival, and I’ve seen nothing since to suggest why this year won’t be the same.
Indeed, her four victories since, the last two coming in Grade 1s against geldings, suggest she wouldn’t be out of place in the Champion Hurdle or the Stayers’ Hurdle. This has long been her target and, barring a mishap of Annie Power proportions, she must rate as the ‘banker’ of the entire meeting – albeit we’re not going to get rich backing her at 8/13.
Of course, Mullins will be doing his best to stop her and it must rankle with him that she used to be part of his team up until his split with Gigginstown. His best hope appears to lie with Benie Des Dieux who has won her last three starts, all over fences, but does have plenty of experience over hurdles when trained in France. She is preferred to stablemate Let’s Dance, who hasn’t really fired this season after looking brilliant for most of the last.
British hopes chiefly lie with Warren Greatrex’s La Bague Au Roi. Always highly rated and boasting a terrific strike rate of 10-13, she has really come good this term and could be called the winner a long way out in a Grade 2 at Ascot last time. The ground was testing on that occasion, but she has plenty of good form on better ground and connections will be hoping for drying conditions.
While she needs to improve again, that’s likely and there is just enough juice in her price – Hills go a top price of 6/1 – to put her up for each-way money. Alternatively, bet365’s 2/1 about her in their ‘without Apple’s Jade’ market is not to be sniffed at either. You pays your money.
Of the rest, I have to give a mention to the Nicky Henderson-trained pair of Kayf Grace and Verdana Blue, assuming they turn up. Their form is in handicaps but they are progressive sorts and the trainer is quite discerning what he runs in this, with his ten runners yielding two seconds and a third.