Hurricane Fly confirmed he will not give up his crown at Cheltenham in March without a fight after clinching a fourth successive BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle and his 19th Grade One win in thrilling style at Leopardstown on Sunday.
Willie Mullins’ remarkable 10-year-old was a 4-7 favourite to emulate the great Istabraq, the only previous four-times champion of this prestigious event, despite the Irish champion trainer admitting his pride and joy had produced “his worst bit of work ever” only a few days ago.
A bruised foot was quickly blamed for that disappointing gallop, but there were still some concerns as he lined up for a second encounter with up-and-coming pair Our Conor and Jezki. Hurricane Fly had beaten them in the Ryanair Hurdle at the Foxrock venue almost a month ago, but with Our Conor expected to improve for the run and Jezki slightly unlucky that day, both camps fancied their chances of closing the gap.
Admirable veteran Captain Cee Bee took the four runners along before the three main protagonists closed up rounding the home turn, with Ruby Walsh aboard Hurricane Fly and Our Conor’s rider Danny Mullins both confident in the saddle. There was little to choose between the duo at the final flight and, just for a moment, it looked like Dessie Hughes’s charge might be getting on top.
But Hurricane Fly roared back and was a length and a half to the good at the line, despite a less than fluent leap at the last, with Captain Cee Bee and Jezki third and fourth respectively.
It was an eighth Leopardstown victory from as many starts for Mullins’ superstar – and an astonishing 19th Grade One triumph in all.
“That was a huge relief. I have huge respect for the horse to do what he did, coming off the bit of work he did during the week,” said Mullins. “If he had been an ordinary horse he wouldn’t have run. It was his worst bit of work ever.
“I was so disappointed coming off the gallops. I was saying to myself, ‘Is the dream over with him and has he had enough?’. Thankfully we found he had a bruised foot. He seemed fine the next morning and he’s been fine since.”
Meanwhile, Paul Nicholls is confident Big Buck’s will “improve enormously” after finishing a close third on his return to action in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday. The 11-year-old led his rivals over the final flight, but was caught on the run-in by shock winner Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross, beaten three-quarters of a length.“All his best runs have come on better ground and hopefully we’ll get that at Cheltenham in March,” said Nicholls.