An intriguing battle between two of Ireland’s best jumps mares in Apple’s Jade and Benie Des Dieux takes place in the 3m Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park on Thursday (13:50).
The pair have clashed twice before back in 2018 when Benie Des Dieux came out on top in Grade 1s at the Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals.
Springtime has not always been kind to Apple’s Jade, however, and this third encounter between the pair could go either way.
As an 11-time winner at the highest level, the case for Gordon Elliott’s Gigginstown House Stud owned mare is obvious.
Apple’s Jade has race fitness on her side, unlike Benie Des Dieux, and returned to form when back over this trip at Leopardstown last time out.
In four career starts over 3m, Apple’s Jade has won three of those.
Her sole defeat at this trip came when denied half-a-length in a blanket finish with If The Cap Fits and Roksana in the Liverpool Hurdle on Grand National day at Aintree last year.
She was third and had a far busier campaign than either the winner or runner-up.
Apple’s Jade was turned over on reappearance in this Lismullen Hurdle and then firmly put in her place by the younger Honeysuckle when bidding for a four-timer in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse.
Elliott reached for cheekpieces to revive the fortunes of this daughter of Saddler Maker.
That headgear worked the oracle as Apple’s Jade completed a hat-trick of consecutive triumphs in the Frank Ward Memorial Hurdle over Christmas.
Although the Galmoy Hurdle is her fourth outing of the campaign, she is battle-hardened and may be even better at a clockwise track like Gowran Park.
This is because Apple’s Jade has a tendency to jump out to her right.
Benie Des Dieux also has obvious claims
Benie Des Dieux also has Grade 1 form at 3m after landing the French Champion Hurdle when last in action.
Trained by Willie Mullins for Rich and Susannah Ricci, the nine-year-old is older than Apple’s Jade but more lightly-raced.
This daughter of Great Pretender has won seven of her eight starts since moving to Closutton from France.
The one blemish for Benie Des Dieux was that infamous final flight fall – echoing legendary Mullins mare Annie Power – at the Cheltenham Festival last March.
She had the Mares’ Hurdle – a race she had beaten Apple’s Jade in some 12 months prior – at her mercy.
Benie Des Dieux showed no ill effects from that tumble, however, as she came out and retained her crown in the Punchestown Festival in facile fashion.
Stormy Ireland, who chased her home in the latter, has since won both her starts this season, so the form looks solid.
Mullins, whose 33 per cent strike rate in the last 14 days at the time of writing is twice as good as the Elliott yard, has minded Benie Des Dieux in a similar way to Quevega.
The question here is will a lack of race fitness tell over 3m? Benie Des Dieux does go well fresh, but plenty of other Mullins mounts have needed their first runs this season.
Although both mares are penalised for previous Grade 1 triumphs and don’t get the usual sex allowance, they remain 2lb and upwards clear of anything else in the Galmoy Hurdle on adjusted ratings.
It makes a reverse forecast with Apple’s Jade – 7/4 with Boylesports – and Benie Des Dieux, 6/5 with William Hill, look the most sensible bet in what promises to a mouthwatering resumption of their rivalry in the mud.
Penhill an each-way alternative in Galmoy Hurdle
If one or other of the market principals don’t fire, then fellow dual Cheltenham Festival hero Penhill should take advantage.
He has been improving with each run after a long lay-off for Mullins and owner Tony Bloom.
The nine-year-old has been delicate fitness wise at times in his career, but triumphs in the 2017 Albert Bartlett and 2018 Stayers’ Hurdle at Prestbury Park command him respect.
Like Benie Des Dieux, Penhill is lightly-raced over hurdles for his age.
This Mount Nelson gelding came on for his return to action after 584 days of the track when an eased last of six in the Lismullen at Navan to be third behind Apple’s Jade at Leopardstown.
Similar improvement between that run and now puts Penhill as the clear third best in the Galmoy Hurdle off his rating of 155.
The remainder of the seven-runner field have half-a-stone and upwards to find on him.
He is building up to something and, although that may not be today, Penhill looks the obvious one to back each-way at 11/1 with BetVictor in the event either Apple’s Jade or Benie Des Dieux disappoint.
Gardens Of Babylon is stepped markedly up in trip by Joseph O’Brien for JP McManus, meanwhile, and that makes him an interesting runner.
As a five-year-old he gets a weight-for-age allowance from his elders. The son of the might Camelot is held in high regard by connections, but has only won one of his last 10 starts.
This looks like an experiment to see whether Gardens Of Babylon relishes tests of stamina and he is open to further progress.
O’Brien could have picked an easier race to try him out as a stayer, though, and Galmoy Hurdle odds of 20/1 with William Hill reflect that.