Cheltenham Festival 2013: Mullins and Hurricane Fly bring warmth to Irish hearts


Prestbury Park, Cheltenham

So long as they have Willie Mullins, they need never weaken. The track set aside for later in the week was hidden under funereal frost sheets, and the air howled with the final, bitter imprecations of winter. But the punters – above all, the Irish – left here last night aglow with the vindication of their faith. However slow the buds of springtime, they know exactly where to find the most reliable bloom in all Nature: a stable in Co Carlow.

True, Hurricane Fly had failed them last year. But yesterday that aberration was redressed as the 2011 winner became only the second horse – the other was Comedy of Errors, way back in 1975 – to retrieve the most coveted prize in hurdle racing. And whatever his innate qualities, and however fortunate he has been in his rider, nobody should mistake his debt to  his trainer.

As if they could. Already Willie Mullins had brought Champagne Fever to the peak of the same annual cycle, adding the first big novice hurdle of the meeting to his success in the bumper last year. And there would still follow Quevega, albeit she was made to work a good deal harder than usual to win the mares’ race for a fifth consecutive year. In the process, she reminded anyone taking Mullins for granted that brilliance in horses, flesh and blood as they are, can never be metronomic. She was his 27th Festival winner, taking him past Tom Dreaper as Ireland’s leading trainer here.

The stands reserved their raucous adulation for Ruby Walsh, another who has lent fresh distinction to a surname respected throughout the Irish Turf. But Walsh himself would recognise no higher praise than that he deserves his opportunities for Mullins.

Many chastened by Hurricane Fly’s flat third last year had lost faith in him. But that left them a Stan James Champion Hurdle full of vexing uncertainties – and that, it turned out, should have been enough instead to renew blind faith in Mullins and Walsh. Certainly, Paddy Power, the bookmaking firm, was made to repent. Having offered to refund all losing bets on the race, if Hurricane Fly happened to win, it paid out €4.3m (£3.8m), including €2.4m in refunds.

As so often here, much of the pre-race speculation proved hopelessly misguided. Admittedly, certain protagonists had themselves made somewhat misleading contributions, but then it is not as if they could realistically be expected to show their hand in advance.

Fears that there would be a false pace were duly dispelled when Rock On Ruby, the defending champion, tore off in front in his new blinkers, shadowed by Zarkandar. Walsh soon looked most uncomfortable, squeezing and pushing along – and that was the cue for the next set of confounded expectations.

For it was now plain that this race would be won through a kernel of courage and stamina. And while 14 Grade One wins had conclusively established Hurricane Fly’s class, he would now have to summon more brutish qualities. After Grandouet fell four out, the group that broke clear comprised three winners of the Champion Hurdle and two of the Triumph Hurdle. And suddenly Hurricane Fly was very much back in business. Binocular was first to crack but Countrywide Flame was still going well, while Zarkandar was hanging tough. The climb to the line would prove unsparing – and unequivocal.

Hurricane Fly ran down Rock On Ruby by two and a half lengths, confirming himself arguably the most illustrious winner of this race since Istabraq; it was just under two lengths back to Countrywide Flame, amplifying the excellence of his trainer, John Quinn, followed by Zarkandar and a long stretch of grass.

“He was never travelling like he can do,” Walsh admitted. “But what he has, along with all the class, is an unbelievably big heart for a small horse and he’s tough as nails. Because I was never travelling, I probably got there two furlongs too soon but he ground it out to the line. He has never been short of stamina or guts, and pinged the last when I needed one today.”

Mullins had long felt that Hurricane Fly was not himself last year. “This means a great deal,” he said. “The horse has come back and proved himself. He’s done on the track what he was telling us at home he could do. It was actually scary what good form he’d been in.”

The horse had made a fairly literal impression earlier in the day, when Mullins took a bucket of water into his stable and imprudently turned his back. Hurricane Fly took a chunk out of the seat of his trousers, and drew blood. “You have to watch yourself around him,” Mullins smiled. “That aggression is part of his make-up and helps him to be as good as he is. But I’ll only be using one side of a barstool tonight!”

Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
people70-year-old was most famous for 'You are So Beautiful'
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
The US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'