Festival victory may see Fly crowned best

Tue, Jan 29, 2013, 00:00

A comprehensive victory at Cheltenham in six weeks time could not only see Hurricane Fly regain the Champion Hurdle crown but also stake a claim to being Ireland’s best ever hurdler.

The Turf Club’s National Hunt handicapper, Noel O’Brien, yesterday confirmed he rates Sunday’s Irish Champion Hurdle success at Leopardstown as equal to Hurricane Fly’s 2011 Cheltenham triumph which earned the former Horse of the Year an official rating of 173.

That is just 3lb behind the best rating achieved by the legendary Istabraq and O’Brien didn’t rule out Hurricane Fly possibly over-taking that benchmark at Cheltenham.

“Hurricane Fly was visually very impressive at Leopardstown but I can’t rate it better than winning what looked at the time a very competitive Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2011,” O’Brien said yesterday. “He beat Thousand Stars, who he always beats, by a very easy five lengths, and Binocular who hadn’t run for a long time and looked like he would come on for the race.

“In the end I’ve put that five lengths down for 10lb which is what Hurricane Fly was rated better than Thousand Stars anyway. From a handicapping point of view Hurricane Fly keeps beating the same horses so it’s hard to increase him.

“But if he comprehensively defeats the English horses at Cheltenham, I think we would definitely have to look at that 173. Right now I have no hesitation in saying Hurricane Fly is the best since Istabraq. He is just short of Istabraq – at the moment,” he added.

Although Anglo-Irish classifications are a modern day phenomenon, O’Brien also attempted to put the current standard-bearer in historical context alongside other great names from the past such as the 1970s superstar Monksfield.

Regular clashes

“In recent years we had horses like Hardy Eustace (169) and Brave Inca (167) winning the Champion Hurdle, and beating other top-class horses like Macs Joy. That made the handicapper’s job easier because you could look at those regular clashes and see for instance that Hardy Eustace had beaten Brave Inca.

I would put a horse like Monksfield into that kind of sphere. He kept running against Sea Pigeon over seasons, so I would compare him to a horse like Hardy Eustace. I just think Hurricane Fly is superior to that,” he said.

Timeform’s all-time ratings over hurdles put Monksfield and Istabraq together on 180.

The theoretical difficulty of trying to compare different generations is complicated by how different handicapping methods were used in the past, and the lack of reliable cross-channel comparisons until comparatively recently.

“Hurricane Fly did what he was supposed to do on Sunday and it’s hard to increase his rating on the basis of that, even though he was visually so impressive. If push comes to shove, and he wins well at Cheltenham, he could well be rated higher than Istabraq when we sit down to do the Anglo-Irish classifications at the end of the season,” said O’Brien.

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