Champion hope Hurricane Fly passes audition

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The Independent Online

The dress rehearsal is the one performance the director always wants over and racehorse trainers, it seems, feel much the same way. After his stable star Hurricane Fly proved fluent in his lines at Leopardstown, Willie Mullins' first reaction was relief that the gelding need not appear in public again until the curtain goes up on the Cheltenham Festival seven weeks tomorrow.

On yesterday's stage, the Irish Champion Hurdle, Hurricane Fly should indeed have known his moves in his sleep; his main rival was Solwhit, his immediate victim in his last three victories, and he had stablemate Thousand Stars to help him. But all had not been entirely smooth behind the scenes in the build-up. "The horse had a slight cut to a leg after his last run at Christmas and his last bit of work was by no means his best," Mullins revealed. "So I'm delighted to get that out of the way. They went a serious gallop and he came out of it and went away to win well."

Mullins' second string, Thousand Stars, under Katie Walsh, made sure of that true test in a five-horse field until Hurricane Fly, the 4-9 favourite, and Solwhit swept past in unison round the home turn. But though the pair were stride for stride at that point, the jockey body language told the tale; Davy Russell, on Solwhit, dropping into drive position, Paul Townend still sitting up, as on a comfy chair, before allowing his mount to ease ahead going to the final obstacle.

The winning margin, three and a half lengths, was Hurricane Fly's greatest yet over Solwhit, but the cast he will face in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham – Britain's best, headed by reigning champion Binocular and rising stars Peddlers Cross and Menorah – will be an entirely new one and, although yesterday's display was slick and professional, it only confirmed his status as Ireland's best and the reaction by some bookmakers in cutting his price for the Festival crown seemed overcautious. The best available was from Paddy Power, unchanged at 5-1.

Solwhit's trainer, Charles Byrnes, has now given best and will not tackle Hurricane Fly again. "No complaints," Byrnes said, "he was beaten – again – by a better horse." Although seven weeks is an eternity in racehorse management, as things stand it is unlikely Solwhit will run in the Champion Hurdle. But he has been given an entry in the three-mile World Hurdle.

For Paul Nicholls, away from the limelight yesterday at a West Country point-to-point, the Queen Mother Champion Chase script very nearly went awry at Ascot on Saturday when Master Minded only scraped home from Somersby in the Victor Chandler Chase. The five-times champion trainer was another mopping his brow after Tony McCoy admitted giving the former two-mile champion chaser a ride he was not particularly proud of. But on the evidence presented, though, the bookmakers' adjustment of the horse in the ante-post Cheltenham lists – he was generally eased – seemed justified.

Away from those accustomed to the red carpet and flashbulbs of the Cheltenham winner's circle it seems that Britain's got talent from the unlikeliest sources. The six-year-old Sparky May set herself up as a first Festival runner for her small-time, veteran trainer Pat Rodford when she won the Grade Two mares' hurdle at Ascot.

Martock-based Rodford, 70, has put off retirement because of the potential of Sparky May, who was bred on his farm. "She was foaled in the middle of the night," he recalled, "and she ended up on one side of the electric tape I had dividing the paddock, and her dam on the other. It was pissing with rain and as I hauled the foal back to her mother under the fence, I got a bit of a shock – literally – hence her name."

Though sired by a decent stallion, Midnight Legend, Sparky May's mother was a useless racehorse who turned showjumper. Yesterday came news of a birth with higher aspirations. Sea The Stars, the brilliant Flat champion of 2009, is a father. His first-born, who arrived safely at Castlebridge Farm, Co Meath, is a bay colt out of a mare whose name – Centreofattraction – will set the tone for the rest of the new arrival's life.

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