Hurricane blows away rivals

Mullins' hurdler looks future champion as Master Minded just scrapes home
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The Independent Online

Present tense, future perfect. The champion of the here and now, Master Minded, had supposedly come here for little more than a lap of honour, but was ultimately forced to pull out all the stops to stem an impudent challenge from Big Zeb. Instead it fell to a younger star in the firmament to illuminate the opening day of the Punchestown Festival with an exhibition of pristine, unmitigated brilliance.

No doubt complications will in time be strewn across the future path of Hurricane Fly. All things being equal, however, his performance in the Evening Herald Champion Hurdle identifies him as one of the best novices in many years. When it comes to racehorses, things are never entirely equal, and even a talent as intoxicating as this one comes with his own, sobering caveat. On the face of it, a Smurfit Champion Hurdle quote of 5-1 from the Irish firm, Cashmans, represents a very fair investment at a time when interest rates are so sterile. Coral, after all, now offers just 5-2. But the race is still over 10 months away, and the fact is that Hurricane Fly missed his first Cheltenham Festival last month because of a freakish training setback.

Purely in terms of talent, however, it is difficult to resist the impression that he is in a different class from Punjabi, the yeoman creature who comes here on Friday as the reigning champion. It is instructive that Willie Mullins was toying with the idea of running Hurricane Fly in a Group One race at the Curragh next month, and few National Hunt horses summon the sort of elite genetic capacity available to a son of the mighty Montjeu.

It was a similar story with Istabraq, as a son of Sadler's Wells. Hurricane Fly, admittedly, is one of the many Montjeus whose temperament does not invite complacency, and Mullins acknowledged that he is a fizzy type. But while undeniably on his toes when mounted, he raced eagerly on a short rein despite a steady pace.

Go Native, his victim at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, had since made the most of his absence at Cheltenham, but could not follow the favourite through when Ruby Walsh finally found an opening approaching the final hurdle. Hurricane Fly hurtled seven lengths clear of Kempes, with Go Native only fourth. "We were amazed by a piece of work he did last Tuesday," Mullins confessed. "It was the best he had done all season. We were hoping he might get back to where he was at Christmas, but he was actually better. He just blew us away."

Though no decision would be made for the time being, the trainer's instinct is not to be distracted by summer options in France, or on the Flat. As he reiterated last month, he is one of the great masters of a Cheltenham preparation and there can be little doubt about the horse's abiding priority now. "You don't ever know what's going to happen – look at the splint he got before Cheltenham this year," Mullins said. "It's quite extraordinary for a horse of his age to get a splint, and even more so to get one on the outside of his leg. But yes, he'll be trained for the Champion Hurdle."

Even without Hurricane Fly, Mullins had left Cheltenham greatly fortified in his hopes that the next wave of young horses in his care had the potential to end the present steeplechasing monopoly of Walsh's other employer, Paul Nicholls. Admittedly, the one at the front of the queue, Cooldine, lacked the fluency and gusto he showed at Cheltenham when only fourth to Rare Bob in the Boylesports Champion Novice Chase, later on the card. But he has had a long, exacting season, and will no doubt resume his progress next winter.

Master Minded, in contrast, had only made three starts all season, but there did not seem to be an awful lot left in the tank in the Kerrygold Champion Chase. Big Zeb, indeed, was only beaten a head despite losing critical momentum with a blunder at the last, but Nicholls was not perturbed afterwards. Walsh had made the running, and told Nicholls on dismounting that Master Minded had simply been idling.

"He wasn't really racing, and you could see he had his ears pricked crossing the line," Nicholls reasoned. "My immediate reaction is that he needs a pacemaker, because what he really wants is holding up off a fast pace. We weren't going to get that here, in a small field, so I told Ruby to keep it uncomplicated."

With more rain forecast overnight, there is obvious concern about Imperial Commander's stamina in the Guinness Gold Cup today.

Perhaps the most interesting runner on the card, however, is Dunguib, who eviscerated his rivals at the Cheltenham Festival and lines up for the Paddy Power Champion Bumper. Perhaps one day he will square up with Hurricane Fly, but that is somehow getting into the realms of the future pluperfect.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Wigram's Turn (8.20 Kempton)

NB: Perfect Stride (3.20 Ascot)