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!”