Since it’s introduction in 2008, and subsequent upgrade to Grade One status in 2015, debate has always raged as to how necessary the Mares’ Hurdle is at the Festival.
In theory, a championship for mares could only be regarded as a good thing for the sport given how keen racing’s authorities are to expand their programme- the race will be joined by a Mares’ Chase in 2020- but in practice it hasn’t quite gone as smoothly as BHA would’ve liked.
Two of the top three in the market for last season’s Champion Hurdle were both of the fairer sex, showing that connections of an absolutely top class mare would still rather be crowned queen of all hurdlers, a la Annie Power, rather than queen of their own sex.
That then begs the question that if the best mares aren’t even going to run in the mares’ championship race, then what is the point of having it at all? Nevertheless, from an antepost perspective it’s a fascinating race to talk about, especially given that there’s a number of well above average hurdling mares around at the minute.
The last three winners of the race are all prominent in the betting, which is headed by 2018 winner Benie Des Dieux (2-1). Walsh, Mullins & Ricci, an odds-on mare clear at the final flight at Cheltenham. It couldn’t happen again, could it?
Benie Des Dieux’s late tumble led to her first defeat for Mullins, and without it she would boast an unbeaten streak of 8 stretching back to 2016 when she first moved to Closutton.
She has rarely been troubled in that period of time and would surely have been one of the easiest winners of the week had she stayed on her feet, and then went some way to making amends when cantering all over Cheltenham runner-up Stormy Ireland at Punchestown.
If there were any doubts left about the ability possessed by Benie Des Dieux, they were surely allayed when she produced a career best at Auteuil to hand French superstar De Bon Coeur only a second defeat in her life- and she did it easily as well, pulling over six lengths clear from a horse who had the won the same race by sixteen the year before.
This is a championship class mare who would surely be towards to the top of the betting in either the Champion Hurdle or Stayers Hurdle given her outstanding versatility if either of those became the target, but the Mullins camp tend to play it safe if they have one they like for this race and it would take a huge effort from any horse attempting to stand in the way of her regaining her crown. I’m massively excited to see her back out this season.
Saying that, if all the leading mares in Britain and Ireland, it’ll be some clash, though the likelihood of them all doing so seems slim unfortunately.
Apple’s Jade (6-1) won the race in 2017 is somewhat of a hard horse to weigh up going into the new season, given that it ended rather meekly for a horse of her world-class talent.
She had already won three Grade Ones over three different distances before Cheltenham last season and quite rightly was sent off favourite for the Champion Hurdle following her stellar performances up to that point, but finished sixth, posing no threat whatsoever to the winner and then disappointed twice again on retrieval missions at both Aintree and Punchestown.
(I know some will argue that her close third behind If The Cap Fits and Roksana at Aintree wasn’t a poor effort, but it was still more than a level below the form she’d shown in the Hatton’s Grace and Christmas Hurdle earlier in the season.)
I’ll admit I’m baffled by it- if she’s supposedly dislikes Cheltenham as much as some would make out then how was she able to beat Vroum Vroum Mag, herself a previous winner of this race, in the 2017 renewal and if she’s only a “winter horse,” again an explanation that has been proposed by some pundits, then why does she have Grade One victories at all three major spring festivals to her name?
There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why Apple’s Jade flopped three times in a row and therefore it’s impossible to be 100% confident in her, but there shouldn’t be a single soul that underestimates her because of it, as we’ve seen her bounce back before and that she looked practically unbeatable on more than one occasion last year- I’d also wager that she’s more at home over 2m4f than she is over 2m, so another crack at the Mares’ Hurdle would be a likelier target than another go at the Champion Hurdle.
Equally hard to weigh up is Laurina (6-1), who by my reckoning features in the top five in the market for five different Festival races, ranging from two mile hurdles to three mile chases.
She’d looked very good in winning some Mickey Mouse mares’ races before the hype was put to the test in the Champion Hurdle.
She came home a never dangerous fourth, and opinion clearly varies as to what degree that can be counted as a success or failure. Improvement from her can be expected this campaign and we’ll surely know more about her come the end of it, but given the heads the betting for the both the Arkle and JLT, and that Willie Mullins has often spoke about Laurina’s physical size and scope, the transition to the larger obstacles looks to be the her likelier route this season.
Clearly the most exciting mare to come through the novice ranks last season was Honeysuckle (6-1). Despite missing Cheltenham with an injury, she maintained a flawless 4/4 record last season, including when confirming herself as the superior of Dawn Run Novice Hurdle winner Eglantine Du Seuil in the corresponding Grade One at Fairyhouse.
She’s yet to meet a rival to make her work and this certainly looks the likeliest route that Henry De Bromhead will take with her- whether she goes on to be as good as Benie Des Dieux or Apple’s Jade remains to be seen, but she’ll be a smashing addition to the division.
Reigning champion Roksana (8-1) could obviously count herself as fortunate to have won the race last season, but she’s a really likeable mare and justified her place at racing’s top table when a battling second to If The Cap Fits in the Liverpool Hurdle.
She possibly lacks the gears and overall star quality of those shorter in the betting than her, but she’s a robust and consistent animal who will that ensure that none of the Irish superstars can have an off day, because she’s already proven she’s capable of picking up the pieces if they do so.