Willie Mullins has suspected all winter long that too much was going too well, and last night he was proved right. Hurricane Fly, considered by many good judges the best novice hurdler since Istabraq, will miss the Cheltenham Festival as a result of the setback that prevented him from running at Leopardstown 10 days ago. He will now be aimed at Punchestown in April, but his absence represents a dispiriting blow to the great Cotswold carnival now just 13 days away.
Only on Sunday Go Native, thrashed by Hurricane Fly at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, was an impressive winner of a good race at Naas. Sadly it was already obvious that Hurricane Fly would have to meet a demanding schedule of recuperation, and after trying to engage an extra gear on the gallops yesterday Mullins contacted his owners with a heavy heart.
The Irish champion trainer can console himself that he will still have the favourite for the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle, in Cousin Vinny – a measure of the unprecedented strength of his young hurdlers. Moreover he has never had a stronger team of bumper horses, so his hegemony seems likely to be preserved next season. The sponsors make Cousin Vinny 7-2 from 4-1, with David Pipe's Torphichen best of the home team at 6-1.
Mullins was encouraged by signs of renewal in Snowy Morning at Fairyhouse last Saturday, albeit he was ultimately only a distant second to Black Apalachi after travelling well. Snowy Morning, third at Aintree last year, is unlikely to run again before the John Smith's Grand National. Meanwhile the runner-up last year, King Johns Castle, may resurface in a race over hurdles at Navan on Saturday.
Initially Arthur Moore, his trainer, had ruled him out for the entire season because of a tendon problem. "Obviously we're pleased he came back to himself quicker than expected, and everything seems fine with him," Moore said yesterday. "He's quite forward but the main objective is just to get a run into him, and that will either be this weekend or the following weekend. I wouldn't want to run him on heavy ground and the conditions will be the deciding factor where he goes."
Nobody will be have more interest in his performance than Tony McCoy, whose craving for a first National hinges on the horses owned by his employer, JP McManus. Last year McCoy surrendered King Johns Castle to Paul Carberry, whose record over the big fences could hardly be in greater contrast with his own. McCoy's decision this time will once again require him to assess Butler's Cabin, who is likely to have his rehearsal in a Cheltenham handicap.
McCoy is due to be at Kempton this morning to partner Binocular, white hot favourite for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, in a racecourse gallop. Trainers working their Festival candidates at Bangor, meanwhile, include Nicky Richards and Henry Daly, the latter trying to complete a remarkable salvage operation with Mighty Man – whose career seemed over when he broke down at Punchestown in 2007.
But the theme that volunteers itself – between Mighty Man, King Johns Castle and Hurricane Fly – is an uncomfortably obvious one. For Mullins to prove the last trainer obliged to withdraw a potential champion from the 2009 Festival would represent a triumph of hope over experience.
*The rider Jacqueline Coward was taken by helicopter to hospital after a crashing fall in the opener at Catterick yesterday left her suffering from concussion and a dislocated shoulder.