The tempest had died away, but yesterday its legacy was strewn across the track both here, where a champion steeplechaser was humbled, and at Punchestown where there was a similar reverse for a champion hurdler in the making.
It is perfectly feasible to exonerate both Master Minded and Hurricane Fly. Each was making his first appearance since April against highly eligible opponents in execrable conditions. Pale sunshine was welcome on both sides of the Irish Sea after the deluges of previous days, but the going underfoot had begun to congeal. Anyone who caught the opener at Punchestown, where they finished legless, knew that this was going to be an afternoon when any chinks in a horse's fitness would be pitilessly exposed.
The writing was on the wall for Hurricane Fly almost at once. With just three rivals, Paul Townend tried to settle him in front but his mount proved in a reckless hurry. Townend then took a lead off Muirhead, but still Hurricane Fly bowed and swayed his head.
His chief concern was always going to be Davy Russell on Solwhit, and so Townend kept him trapped on the rail as Muirhead came off the bridle. But when the gap came, approaching the last, Russell was in like Flynn. Solwhit dashed two and a half lengths clear on the flat with Hurricane Fly one-paced in third, another length away.
It should be noted that the odds-on favourite had been gelded during the summer and may take a bit more work now. As a son of Montjeu, equally, he must show the stomach for fighting established hurdlers. Willie Mullins, his trainer, played a dead bat. "They finished in the order the handicapper had assessed them," he noted. "It was his first step up into senior company, and I'm happy with his performance."
Charles Byrnes confirmed that Solwhit had been pretty straight for his comeback. "My lad doesn't take a lot of work to get him right," he remarked. "If we weren't going to beat Hurricane Fly today, we never were." Solwhit may yet go for the WBX Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday week but will otherwise wait for Christmas at Leopardstown. "He's an improver," Russell said. "There's very little between all these horses. No one knows what will win [at Cheltenham in March] but my horse is a contender." Suitably perplexed, Coral eased Hurricane Fly from 5-2 to 4-1 for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, the same price as Binocular, with Solwhit now 5-1 from 9-1.
As for Master Minded, he was always entitled to struggle giving 10lb to a horse as talented as Well Chief. And while he was soon in the lead under Ruby Walsh, his notoriously delicate rival had palpably returned in robust form, tracking him comfortably and shrugging off a mistake at the fifth. Timmy Murphy sent him on two out by which stage Mahogany Blaze and Newmill had also closed, both going better than the favourite. Well Chief eventually saw off Mahogany Blaze by just over a length, with a one-paced Master Minded nearly three lengths away in third.
Paul Nicholls, his trainer, had been reconciled to the possibility of defeat but admitted to some concern over its manner. "Basically, he has just hung to his right throughout the race," he said. "I had said beforehand that if Well Chief was ever going to beat us, it was going to be today, and I am more disappointed by the fact that he has hung, rather than the fact he has got beat."
Nicholls recalled Master Minded had shown a similar predilection when arriving from France. Indeed, Walsh had initially rejected any notion of going to Cheltenham, because he would have to be kept to right-hand tracks. "I don't know why he has done it again today," Nicholls said. "Maybe the ground was a bit dead for him. He had a good blow after the race. We will be back at level weights, and right-handed, in the Tingle Creek at Sandown."
He willingly joined the applause for Well Chief, whose renewal was warmly recognised by the crowd – along with the skill and patience of his trainer. "He's in the last chance saloon and not getting any younger so we have to look after him," David Pipe said. "He does most of his work in the swimming pool. That reception shows just what National Hunt racing is all about."
Well Chief's owner, David Johnson, compared him to a 10-year-old car with 3,000 miles on the clock. "He has glass legs," he said. "He has been blistered, had stem-cell treatment, you name it. It's amazing he's still walking."
Master Minded, previously odds-on, is now 7-4 for the defence of his crown in March, while Big Zeb is as short as 100-30 with Totesport. The best price for Well Chief is 7-1. Others may be prepared to be more indulgent but bookmakers sense the winds of change.