They do come back, as Long Run proved on Boxing Day and as Willie Mullins hopes Hurricane Fly will also manage in March. And indeed the horse who lost his Champion Hurdle crown with a below-par third place 10 months ago looked a shadow of the one who serenely left his rivals in his wake at Leopardstown yesterday to make it two for two for this season. "Of course I respect the English hurdlers," said Mullins, "but if we can get our lad to Cheltenham in the same sort of form he's in now, I'll be happy."
Hurricane Fly, ridden by Ruby Walsh, was opposed by only four in the Istabraq Festival Hurdle at the Co Dublin track. His stable-mate Thousand Stars provided a lead until after the second-last obstacle, after which the eight-year-old, who had shown all his old slick technique in the air, stamped his class on the proceedings as a 1-5 shot should. His effortless change of gear in the straight took him an eased-down seven lengths clear of Unaccompanied, who fended off Thousand Stars and Captain Cee Bee for the minor honours.
The 2011 champion is now as short as 3-1 to regain his title, challenging the young pretender Darlan, trained by Nicky Henderson, at the head of the Champion Hurdle market, ahead of Grandouet, another Henderson inmate, and Paul Nicholls's charge Zarkandar.
"Last season he wasn't himself, seemed a bit weak," Mullins added. "But this time he's strengthened back up and is back to where he was two years ago. He's settling better with age and today he could have done no more. He got a lead and quickened when he had to, and Ruby said he jumped fantastically when he pulled him out to go round the others."
Hurricane Fly will take his usual route to the Festival, with the Irish Champion Hurdle back at Leopardstown in late January his next target. "We'll take it step by step, and that is the obvious next one, and only after that will we start thinking about who has to beat who," Mullins said.
The Istabraq Festival Hurdle was Hurricane Fly's 13th top-level prize, putting him joint third with Moscow Flyer on the all-time Grade One leaderboard, one behind the horse saluted eponymously by yesterday's race. The penultimate Irish meeting of the year, though, brought a statistic far dearer to Mullins's heart. With victory on his Co Carlow stable's Zuzka in the Grade Three mares' hurdle, his jockey son Patrick notched his 73rd winner of 2012, a record for an amateur in a calendar year. The previous mark had been set by Billy Parkinson in 1915.
Mullins Jnr, who made it 74 on Outlander in the concluding bumper, rode his first winner at the age of 16. "Obviously I'm delighted," said his father, "and thanks go to all our owners who have supported Patrick. And also to Father Moloney from Clongowes Wood, who let him out of school to ride."
If Ireland was the scene of the afternoon's most significant elite performance, it was also the source of the day's most intriguing thought. Although Flemenstar, caught close home by Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant in Friday's Lexus Chase, is to have his stamina tested again over three miles in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February, he may drop back to two miles at Cheltenham to face Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
"Our lad is a great jumper," Peter Casey, his trainer, said. "But every time he landed on Friday he was wanting to get going. He has plenty of speed and at Cheltenham, if we went for the Queen Mother, we'd give that other lad something to think about."
The Grade One Challow Hurdle at Newbury has a fine pedigree – recent winners include Fingal Bay and Denman – but whether the form of yesterday's edition, run at a crawl in bottomless ground, can be reprised at the Festival remains to be seen. The nine-length winner, the Jonjo O'Neill-trained 13-8 favourite Taquin Du Seuil, has the Neptune Novices Hurdle as his target in March.
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