Even the fog that hopelessly obscured proceedings at Newbury yesterday could not match the sense of disorientation achieved by the sheer, bewildering variety of good horses finally released from jump racing's deep freeze. Between Big Buck's, whose ghostly form eventually strolled out of the gloom at Newbury, and Big Zeb, who confirmed his own stature over at Leopardstown, so many could be recommended for top billing that it is hard to know where to start. Ultimately, however, none grabbed the lapels quite as insistently as Hurricane Fly.
True, in dishing out yet another beating to Solwhit on the Paddy Power card at Leopardstown, he might seem to have told us nothing new. This was the third time running he has beaten the same rival into second. But he looks better every time, here coasting two and a half lengths clear without coming off the bridle. Granted an overdue change of luck in the build-up to Cheltenham – he has missed both the last two Festivals with setbacks – he surely represents his trainer's best chance to date of winning the Stan James Champion Hurdle. He is now 3-1 favourite with the sponsors, but can still be backed at 9-2 with Coral.
Willie Mullins was especially relieved, having already seen Zaidpour and Golden Silver turned over after they had similarly impressed at Fairyhouse just a fortnight previously. "I thought the run there took a good bit out of him, and was afraid that he was a little bit flat coming here," Mullins said. "But he had to take his chance, with the weather maybe closing in again, and once again he showed what a turn of foot he has. Nothing is set in stone but I'd say he'll come back here for the Irish Champion Hurdle next month."
In the case of Zaidpour, who failed by a neck to catch First Lieutenant at odds of 1-4, Mullins assumes the race came too soon after Fairyhouse. Paul Townend never exuded his usual confidence on this occasion, and his mount seemed a little flat-footed when a slow pace picked up. But it would be no less hasty for punters to get carried away by his first defeat than by the manner of his previous wins. He remains potentially top-class.
Nor could Mullins be too despondent over the defeat of Golden Silver, who rallied bravely for second behind Big Zeb. The winner looked firmly on course for his defence of the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Festival, jumping confidently under Barry Geraghty before taking charge very smoothly from the home turn. Colm Murphy, his trainer, was not unduly alarmed to see a three-length lead at the last almost halved on the run-in. "We were easy on him after he won at Navan and then, leading up to this race, he missed some work due to the weather," he explained. "Barry said you'd know he missed that work in the closing stages. But he jumped really well and is settling a lot better now."
Geraghty expressed due gratitude to Nicky Henderson, who might have expected him to ride a big team of horses at Newbury. These included Punchestowns, only just foiled on his comeback in a photo with Pride Of Dulcote. Those who made him 4-11 favourite will be disappointed, but Paul Nicholls assured his connections they had stumbled across a smart one in the winner. Useful over hurdles, Pride Of Dulcote had made an impressive debut over fences last season but then picked up an injury. "He will come on a lot for this," Nicholls said. "He did a leg last year and I've been very careful with him. He'll definitely have a Gold Cup entry."
The champion trainer ended with four winners – notably Big Buck's, who cantered home under Tony McCoy in the rescheduled Long Walk Hurdle, his 10th consecutive Graded success over hurdles. Kauto Star himself could not discourage Nicholls from reckoning Big Buck's as good a horse as he has trained, "ability-wise". All remaining well, Big Buck's will have a mere lap of honour in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, for which he is odds-on.
Nicholls also saddled striking novices over both hurdles and fences in Rock On Ruby and Ghizao, the latter now favourite for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at the Festival, but perhaps the best young prospect on the card was Backspin, who thrashed a strong field in the Challow Hurdle for McCoy, Jonjo O'Neill and J P McManus.
Back at Leopardstown the first card of the meeting, lost to snow on Sunday, is salvaged today, giving Mullins the chance to set Mikael d'Haguenet a fascinating test over a shorter trip.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Douryna (1.50 Taunton) Looked an improved mare for her new stable when switched to fences at Chepstow, closing on the winner when falling at the last. Longer trip should suit.
Super Kenny (3.0 Taunton) Should be well suited by this test of speed after travelling strongly on his return at Newbury.
One to watch
No Trimmings (Gerard Keane) May have opened up new possibilities tried over 10f at Lingfield on Tuesday, set plenty to do off a slow pace but keeping on well in the straight for a close fourth.
Where the money's going
Initially offered at 20-1 for the JCB Triumph Hurdle, after an easy success at Newbury yesterday, Grandouet was backed down to 14-1 with Totesport.