Hurricane blows his rivals away
It will seem far-fetched, after Big Buck's fortified his claims to greatness with a 15th consecutive success at Cheltenham on Saturday, but he might not even be the best hurdler ridden by his jockey over a period of 24 hours. For while Hurricane Fly had repeatedly caused his trainer to postpone his comeback, before finally resurfacing at Leopardstown yesterday, it certainly proved worth the wait. In fact, it is tempting to conclude that Hurricane Fly's chance of retaining his crown at Cheltenham in March must be broadly the same as that of Big Buck's doing likewise.
As the latter is no better than 4-7 for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, you might well argue that the even money still available in places against Hurricane Fly for the Stan James Champion Hurdle represents a solid investment.
Recalling the misfortunes that denied him consecutive Festivals in his younger days, all one can do is pray that the horse remains sound. For this is clearly an outstanding hurdler in his absolute pomp. Last seen out in May, Hurricane Fly illuminated a vile afternoon in Dublin with a performance that staggered even Willie Mullins, whose Midas touch once again dominated the weekend in Ireland.
The champion was expected to need the run against four very fit rivals for the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle, a couple of whom belong in the elite tier of hurdlers. In the event, however, Hurricane Fly proved able to carry a motionless Ruby Walsh alongside Thousand Stars on the home turn before sauntering six and a half lengths clear of Oscars Wells.
Walsh would rightly point out that this horse operates in a very different discipline from Big Buck's, and certainly they go about their business accordingly. Over two miles, however, Hurricane Fly is surely as good as we have seen since Istabraq. Sensible of their privilege, the Leopardstown crowds dashed back through the rain and gloom to salute their champion, wreathed in clouds from his own mighty lungs, back into the unsaddling enclosure.
"He completely surprised me," Mullins said. "I was hoping that he might get through today, and come home safe and sound. I wasn't prepared for what he did. It must be as good a performance as he has ever produced. Ruby said he wasn't travelling in the ground early on, but once he put him in the race three out, he came alive."
Moreover the trainer permitted himself to hope that the horse might have "a bit left in the tank" with six weeks still to go to the Festival. Mullins had been surprised by Hurricane Fly's somnolent demeanour both in the preliminaries, and in the early stages of the race. "We've been trying to get him to [relax] for years, so maybe now the penny has dropped with him," the champion trainer said. "He was very quiet beforehand. Normally it takes two lads to lead him. We had been worried before Cheltenham last year, how he would handle the parade, but he went round like a handicapper today. Maybe he's just maturing."
Those still seeking to oppose the favourite can legitimately argue that Oscars Wells took another step forward in second, in testing conditions he is said to detest. Back on spring ground, in a big field, he certainly remains entitled to make the frame at Cheltenham. Unaccompanied, meanwhile, was plainly not herself, never involved despite receiving 9lb. But it is very hard to envisage Zarkandar or Grandouet doing anything in their trials to suggest that last season's novices can meet the vintage standards set by Hurricane Fly.
Predictably enough, some of the very best youngsters in the next crop are stabled with Mullins. After yet another treble on Saturday's card, Mullins extended his amazing run when Boston Bob defied a penalty in a Grade Two novice hurdle – with stablemate Make Your Mark beaten for the first time in third, having travelled well for a long way – to maintain his unbeaten record since arriving in Co Carlow from Howard Johnson's yard.
With options at different trips, Mullins is reserving judgement on Boston Bob's Festival target until some of his other prospects have had their own Leopardstown trials on Sunday week. But he has no doubts about the horse's essential quality.
"There was a day we galloped a few at Thurles, horses we thought were top horses," he recalled. "Boston Bob came through going easily, and we thought that day we had a racehorse. I thought he had the size and scope to carry the penalty. Three out, I wasn't so sure, but Ruby said he hated the ground. He looks a big, strong chaser and we look forward to him going over fences next season, but staying over hurdles for now has taught him to race."
The stable's spree was interrupted, however, when Flemenstar's runaway win in the Frank Ward Arkle Novice Chase confirmed him a rising star for a much smaller operation. Peter Casey, his respected trainer, will keep Flemenstar away from Cheltenham, this time at least, stressing that soft ground is important to him.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Nelson Du Ronceray (3.25, Ayr)
Good record over course and distance in his younger days and made a promising start for this stable before failing to get home over a longer trip last time.
Next best: Storm Survivor (3.15, Plumpton)
The least exposed of these and may have more to give, stepping up intrip today and to be tried in a visor, after finishing miles clear of third last time.
One to watch: Batonnier (Alan King) maintained his improvement at Cheltenham on Saturday, always travelling well, and a handicap would represent an interesting alternative to one of the novice races at the Festival.
Where the money's going: Sir Des Champs, who beat Hidden Cyclone at Leopardstown on Saturday, is 7-1 from 8-1 with William Hill for the Jewson Novices' Chase at Cheltenham in March.
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