OLBG Mares' Hurdle (David Nicholson) (Grade 1)
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Run on the first day of Cheltenham Festival each year (Tuesday 14th March), the OLBG Mares Hurdle (formerly the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle) has been run nine times. Six of those were won by Willie Mullins’s star mare, Quevega.
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With only nine runnings – and six of those won by Quevega, while Annie Power should have won but for a last hurdle fall in 2015 – trends are hard to come by.
- Willie Mullins has trained 8 of the 9 winners
- Ruby Walsh has ridden 7 of the 9 winners
- 6-year-olds have finished 2nd in this race 4 times in the 9 runnings
- 20 of the last 26 winners and placed horses finished in the first two on their last completed start
Welcome to a race continually farmed by the Willie Mullins yard, with no less than seven of the eight winners in the race’s short history: six with the legendary Quevega; Glens Melody in 2015 who picked up the pieces after Annie Power fell when well clear over the last and Vroum Vroum Mag in 2016.
After her win in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, Apple’s Jade shot up to the joint top of the market and it is not hard to see why. She started off with an easy win at Leopardstown in a Grade 2 and then went to the Triumph Hurdle where she finished a very credible second behind Ivanovich Gorbatov. However, when she reopposed that rival in the 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle at Aintree a few weeks later she emphatically put him in his place, winning by a staggering 41 lengths. Although disappointing at the start of this season, she started to show her true form when winning the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, beating Vroum Vroum Mag and cementing her place at the joint top of the market. She has other options open to her, including the Champion Hurdle, and although Gordon Elliott is yet to give us any clues as to where she will be heading, this seems to be the most viable. A horse who seems to need cut in the ground to show her best form which would be a concern as that is not assured at Cheltenham come March, unsurprisingly she is still progressing as a five-year-old. We are likely to have not seen the best of her yet.
With her at the top of the market is Vroum Vroum Mag who, although beaten in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle by Apple’s Jade, made amends when winning the Irish Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown a few weeks later. Another one of Willie Mullins’s super mares, she is incredibly versatile and has proven herself to be very smart, winning the race last season for connections in good style. Back on equal weights with Apple’s Jade – who she had to give weight to on their previous meeting – it would be no surprise to see her reverse the form and she has a good chance to continue her great record in the UK and Ireland, only beaten once in 12 starts. Seemingly ground versatile, with wins ranging from good to soft to heavy ground, Mullins’s eight-year-old seems to be flattening out in terms of progression. Although she is still obviously high class at her current level, she could be vulnerable to improving horses. She is not, however, the only option for connections, with another up-and-coming mare for Mullins also lurking in the shadows.
Not yet seen this season, Limini showed promise in two runs for Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci before heading to Cheltenham to win the Dawn Run Mares Novices’ Hurdle with ease. Although second on both runs since, she was not disgraced in defeat. With Ricci highly unlikely to race his mares against each other, it is anyone’s guess as to which will be given their chance in the race. But, considering how versatile Vroum Vroum Mag is, she is the one with the most options compared to her stablemate and going back over fences is entirely possible. It will be interesting to note where Limini reappears as it should give us a better idea as to Willie Mullins’s intentions. However, this mare has huge scope for improvement as a lightly raced six-year-old, and with wins on good and heavy ground, she is certainly versatile in that regard too. What is a slight concern is her run in the Irish Mares Champion Hurdle when upped 2m 2f, as she looked very one-paced in the home straight and was easily brushed aside by her lesser fancied stablemate. She should be better than that run, but she will need to be against some other talented mares who have shown better form. Although it is still early days, she is yet to win a Grade 1.
A multiple Grade 1 winner over hurdles, Jer’s Girl is still likely to have more to give for the rest of this season. Winner of the Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final at Fairyhouse and the Irish Champion Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown, she created a good impression both times, winning with ease. She has not gone on from those runs however, finishing a well beaten second in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown and a disappointing last place in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown a month later. Stepping back up in trip seems to be the correct move as she won both her Grade 1 races at this trip. Jer’s Girl should also not be discounted on the back of her recent efforts, with trainer Gavin Cromwell stating that she ran flat on her latest run, and that the Mares’ Hurdle is indeed her intended target: “She ran a bit flat, but she’s come out of the race okay. She’ll go for the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. Whether she runs in between, I’m not sure.” As only a five-year-old she should be progressive, so it is concerning that she seems to be regressing this season. She does need to show something extra in the lead-up to the Festival to convince that she can challenge the other talented mares in the race.
An interesting runner for Paul Nicholls is Lifeboat Mona who has been inconsistent for the Champion Trainer, but stepped up markedly on her latest start when winning at Ascot in November, easily dismissing her rivals by eight lengths. Still lightly raced over hurdles with just four runs under her belt, she should be capable of better, and if continuing to progress from her latest run she would be a creditable Each Way threat in the race. Considering she was only a €600 buy, it would be a fairy tale if she were to win the race which last year had a purse of £100,000. The main concern, however, would be her lack of Group 1 experience as the highest class of race she has competed in is listed company so far. It would be interesting to see her upped to that level before the Festival so that we can get a true indication of her current level.
When analysed, there was plenty to like about Kotkikova‘s fifth in the Irish Christmas Hurdle, travelling nicely throughout the race and, despite not finding much down the straight, it was her first run for seven months and pleased her owner J P McManus. His racing manager Frank Berry stated that better can hopefully be expected on her next outing: “She ran well to a point. It was her first run after a long time so hopefully she will improve for it.” A winner of eleven races over both codes in France, Nicky Henderson’s six-year-old mare is likely to be capable of better with race fitness. Even though no clues were given as to where she will be headed next, she is definitely one to keep a close eye on as she was a multiple graded winner in France.
There are currently 53 entries in the OLBG Mares Hurdle at the initial stage:
- Airlie Beach
- Al Reesha
- Annie Power
- Apple’s Jade
- Augusta Kate
- Benie Des Dieux
- Briery Queen
- Camelia De Cotte
- Colin’s Sister
- Colla Pier
- Crack Tiepy
- Desert Queen
- Dusky Legend
- Grape Tree Flame
- Happy Diva
- Hidden Identity
- Indian Stream
- Intense Tango
- Jer’s Girl
- Late Night Lily
- Let’s Dance
- Lifeboat Mona
- Listen Dear
- Listen To The Man
- Mariah’s Legend
- Midnight Jazz
- Midnight Tour
- Miss Crick
- Morello Royale
- Pass The Time
- Rene’s Girl
- Rock On The Moor
- Rons Dream
- Screaming Rose
- Shattered Love
- Surtee Du Berlais
- The Organist
- Viky Du Reponet
- Vive Ma Fille
- Vroum Vroum Mag
- Water Spirte
- Magie Du Ma
Since its inception in 2008, the Mares Hurdle race has been one of the showpiece events on the first day of the Festival. It has also been synonymous with the name Quevega.
The first ever race was won by 20/1 shot White Oak, who was wallowing with the back markers before the third last, but jockey Jason Maguire pushed her along and she swept past all the other runners, taking victory by a short head.
Then Willie Mullins came on to the scene with the French bred Quevega. She went into the 2009 hurdle as the 2/1 favourite and recovered from a slow start to romp to an impressive 14 length victory. What followed was the longest winning streak in Cheltenham history, as the dominant mare won the race for the next five years, beating the five year winning streak Golden Miller managed in 1930’s Gold Cups.
There were a couple of close calls along the way; Ruby Walsh needed to shake her up a little in 2010 and 2012, but both times she responded and ran clear. Held up at the rear in 2013, she had to show her blistering pace to bypass every horse on her way to victory, which she did with consummate ease. The closest run of all her wins was in 2014 as she was pushed all the way by stablemate Glens Melody – who actually led the history seeking mare going over the last. But Quevega showed her class once again, overtaking her rival to win by three quarters of a length on her final Cheltenham Festival appearance.
With Quevega no longer racing, it looked like Willie Mullins had found the perfect replacement, with Annie Power starting the 2015 event as the odds-on favourite. The seven-year-old showed plenty of class and talent, leading comfortably approaching the last. But it was not to be for her this year, as she and Ruby Walsh clipped the top of the hurdle and were sent tumbling to the ground. In a thrilling three way battle to pick up the win that had suddenly presented itself, it was the 2014 runner-up Glens Melody who edged out Polly Peachum and Bitofapuzzle by a nose, ensuring Mullins would hold on to the Mares Hurdle trophy for a seventh consecutive year.
In 2016, the dominance of the Willie Mullins yard continued, but this time with French import Vroum Vroum Mag who came into the race off the back of an eight race winning streak. Sent off the 4/6 favourite, she was held up in rear under Ruby Walsh who gradually went through the gears and turning for home she pinged the last to beat Rock On The Moor by two and a half lengths in what was a very comfortable victory.