Our ante-post series continues this afternoon and the Mares Hurdle is the latest contest under the spotlight. Regular contributor Richard Smith has taken a look at the main contenders...
Just two weeks out from the Cheltenham Festival, the majority of punters will be keeping their powder dry ahead of the four day betting extravaganza, especially with so many runners entered in so many races at this stage and ante-post value a thing of Autumn dreams.
That is certainly the case with the Mares Hurdle, where three of the top four in the betting hold entries in three or more races at the Festival!
All talk around this race revolves around last year's winner, Vroum Vroum Mag, who, despite holding entries in the Champion Hurdle; Champion Chase; Ryanair Chase; Stayers Hurdle and Gold Cup, looks most likely to go for back-to-back wins in this race, if her owner, Rich Ricci, is to be believed. Speaking recently, the American said "I think it’s probably highly unlikely unless there’s some disaster that she would go back over fences for the Festival...I imagine the natural race for her would be the mares’ race."
Currently a best price 6/4 chance to retain her crown, Vroum Vroum Mag looks a solid pick on form if betting with a firm offering 'non runner, no bet' to give trainer, Willie Mullins, a ninth consecutive victory in the race!
The eight-year-old came in to the Festival, 12 months ago, unbeaten in eight starts for Mullins - extending that at Cheltenham, before extending to ten wins on the spin with victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival.
However, her seemingly bulletproof form was ruptured on her first start of this season, when beaten a short-head by Apple's Jade in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse, in December. Two subsequent wins suggest that defeat was a minor blip but it should not go unnoticed that her last five victories have not been anywhere close to the commanding efforts she showed in 2014 and 2015, after arriving at her new home in County Carlow, from France.
Apple's Jade and Vroum Vroum Mag are set to meet again in the Mares Hurdle, where the Gordon Elliott mare will be hoping to frank that Hatton's Grace form. However, in her subsequent run, this season, she was beaten in to second by Limini in the Quevega Mares Hurdle, over 2m 4f, at Punchestown, a couple of weeks back.
That was the third time in her last four starts that she finished second, so her willingness to engage in a battle up to the winning post could be something to keep in mind, especially up the Cheltenham hill, where she found Ivanovich Gorbatov too good for her 12 months ago...However, she found enough to see off 'Mag' in December, which could be the only evidence that would-be-backers need to put faith in the five-year-old on day one.
The fact that Apple's Jade has never finished outside of the top two, with three of those being victories in Grade One events, is enough to suggest that this mare is classy and given her age, she has a bright future. It would be hard to put anyone off backing her at 5/2 but the preference is for Vroum Vroum Mag, who could benefit from that little extra experience, especially winning form at Prestbury Park, in this re-match.
The horse that beat Apple's Jade last time out, Limini, is a stablemate of Vroum Vroum Mag and another of Rich Ricci's 'embarrassment of riches' and varies in price for the Mares Hurdle - as short as 11/10 and as big as 3/1. The current word is that the six-year-old is a 50/50 chance to run in the Champion Hurdle and it wouldn't be advised to have a bet on her to win the Mares Hurdle, unless backers are getting a 'non runner, no bet' concession.
If it was decided that that the Mares Hurdle was the best route for her, then she has an outstanding chance of victory, as she does in the Champion Hurdle, too. Wherever she lines up, last year's Trull House Stud Mares' Hurdle winner, has to be respected, but isn't advisable as a bet for the Mares Hurdle, unless concrete news emerges.
Another Mullins/Ricci entry in the race, who also falls under the the multiple entries, adding to punters' headaches is Let's Dance. This five-year-old doesn't have anywhere close to the form that her stablemates do, but a hat-trick of impressive wins in Ireland, this term, suggests she on an upward trajectory and whilst this may be a big ask at this stage of her career, she is certainly one for the future.
In summary, the 2017 renewal of the Mares Hurdle is a Willie Mullins versus the field affair, as the five times winner of the Cheltenham Top Trainer award looks to continue his near decade long domination of this race.
Apple's Jade is a huge danger to put a stop to Mullins' stranglehold of this division but whoever winds up representing the County Carlow handler, is sure to lay down a serious challenge and with that looking likely to Vroum Vroum Mag, the pick is for last year's winner to retain her crown and the current odds could represent great value come the opening day of the meeting.
Mares Hurdle Advice and Betting
Vroum Vroum Mag @ 6/4 with Betfair (Non Runner, No Bet)