Blizzards clear for Hurricane, but day ends in a bitter Twist
It was certainly worth the wait, and for Willie Mullins it came within an ace of being a perfect day. In the end, however, it turned out that jump racing remains every bit as cruel as the weather that had caused its prolonged suspension in Ireland. Mullins had already won two of the big prizes compressed into an extraordinary card at Fairyhouse yesterday and, jumping into the lead over the last in the Drinmore Novice Chase, it looked as though Mikael d'Haguenet would prove every bit as impressive as Hurricane Fly and Zaidpour. What's more, he positively flew the fence – only for his forelegs to give way beneath him, leaving Jessies Dream to see off Realt Dubh by five lengths.
It was especially alarming to see a horse like Mikael d'Haguenet suddenly crumple to the ground, given that he had previously been absent for 593 days – and a corresponding relief when jockey Paul Townend led him back apparently unscathed. This was his first defeat since joining Mullins, but it must be said that he had jumped and travelled really well, and the ability that won him novice championships over hurdles at Cheltenham and Punchestown transparently remains intact.
Jessies Dream, incidentally, is likely to be brought over for the big novice chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. His trainer, Gordon Elliott, had already won the juvenile hurdle on an afternoon saturated with quality by serial postponements over the previous three weeks. But proceedings were otherwise dominated by Townend, yet again impressing in the absence of Ruby Walsh, and his boss.
Their most significant success was probably that of Hurricane Fly in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle, replicating his defeat of Solwhit at the Punchestown Festival in April even though his rival ostensibly had an advantage in fitness this time. Once again he cruised through to challenge approaching the last, before asserting on the flat, coping well with the extra distance but again looking a bespoke fit for a hectic two miles in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. The sponsors duly promoted him to 7-2 favourite, ahead of Menorah on 4-1 and Binocular on 5-1, but he will need a change of luck simply to get to Cheltenham in March after missing both the last two Festivals.
Mullins will now try to plot the best route there, but suspects that the delay to his comeback has left the Leopardstown Christmas meeting too close for comfort. The obvious alternative is the Irish Champion Hurdle at the same track next month. Either way, Mullins was thrilled that Hurricane Fly could win without a full tank of petrol.
"I thought Solwhit would definitely have a fitness edge on this sort of ground," the trainer admitted. "He pulled too hard for the first mile and three-quarters, so Paul pulled him back in behind, got a bellyful of air into him, and put him back into the race again. I couldn't believe it then – I thought he would flatten out, about the last hurdle, but he jumped it like a professional and put his head down."
Visually, Zaidpour's success in the Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle was still more exciting – perhaps the most exciting of the Irish season to date. Imported from France, where he was pretty useful on the Flat, Zaidpour had easily won a maiden hurdle at Punchestown last month but was at least as impressive here, in Grade One company. This race has announced several future stars over the years but can seldom have been won with such ease, with Zaidpour coasting a dozen lengths clear on the bridle. Mullins recalled having been amazed by a piece of work he did last winter, but the horse sustained a cut that same day and was roughed off for the season. His trainer had not been able to explore his talent at home, this time round, but remembered that there would be something special there "once we started poking for it".
Mullins also had every reason to be pleased with his runners in the fourth Grade One race on the card, the John Durkan Chase. Cooldine jumped boldly and kept on steadily over an inadequate trip to finish a close fifth, while J'y Vole harried Tranquil Sea to the line. And Golden Silver, confidently ridden by Townend, went on to complete a magnificent day for the stable in a Grade Two chase later on the card.
Nothing will please Mullins more, however, than the safe return of Mikael d'Haguenet. For there was a grim reminder of the hazards of his calling over at Newbury, where an old favourite in Twist Magic had to be put down after fracturing a pastern in the Totesport Peterborough Chase. That the race was eventually won by Tartak was scarcely less poignant, moreover. It was at the Berkshire course last month that his trainer, Tom George, had lost his own stable star, Tell Massini. Even in winters like these, it is never the cold that is bitterest.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Scoter Fontaine (2.20 Exeter) Fascinating to see this unexposed novice fast-tracked to handicaps by shrewd connections, who clearly suspect he has been underestimated after bumping into another good prospect last time.
Paphos (7.30 Kempton) Transformed since being gelded in the summer, and might have made it four wins in five but for being hampered at Lingfield last time. Runs off the same mark here and, having started from a very low base, has a bit more to come.
One to watch
Sunnyhill Boy (J J O'Neill) Again shaped as though he will reach new heights once stepped up in trip when powering up the hill for third behind Poquelin in the valuable handicap chase at Cheltenham last Saturday.
Where the money's going
Dan Breen, who has a choice of entries this weekend, is 20-1 from 40-1 with Coral for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham in March.
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