Top-notcher Hurricane Fly unlikely to fluff his lines


RACING:Hurricane Fly may need to regain his Cheltenham crown in March to cement his place at the very top table in Irish hurdling history, but a hat-trick of BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle victories at Leopardstown tomorrow will confirm his statistical credentials against the very best.

Success for Hurricane Fly in the €110,000 highlight, which has turned into something of a Willie Mullins versus JP McManus show, with only plucky Oliver Brady opting to take on the champion trainer and owner, will be a remarkable 14th Grade One win for the horse.

That will match the peerless Istabraq, winner of this race four times in a row between 1998 and 2001, and widely regarded as being the benchmark among Irish hurdlers in modern times, along with the 1970’s star Monksfield.

Willie Mullins himself considers Hurricane Fly a once in a lifetime horse, no mean tribute considering the levels of talent in his yard through the years, and a tribute possibly endorsed by his view that the horse beaten just once in his last 11 starts is back to his best.

That one blemish came at the worst time when only third in his Cheltenham title defence last year but Mullins has been much happier with Hurricane Fly this campaign which has already seen him win twice. “I don’t think there was anything troubling him last season. He just didn’t come back as strong. He probably didn’t do as well during the summer and we never got to put the condition and strength into him that we needed,” said Mullins yesterday.

“This year he’s come back much stronger and he has taken his training well and doing everything right, so fingers crossed we can keep him right for Sunday. He’s a much more settled horse all round this year,” he added.

First start

Hurricane Fly’s stable companion Thousand Stars, himself a dual-French Champion Hurdle winner, also starts tomorrow against a pair of JP McManus-owned stars headed by the 2010 Champion Hurdle winner Binocular.

This will be a first start of the season for Nicky Henderson’s enigmatic nine-year-old who will bid to be the first cross-channel winner since Collier Bay in 1996, and who will also provide a valuable ‘sighter’ for Darlan, currently Hurricane Fly’s competition at the top of the Cheltenham betting.

“He had a good break and was a little bit late going back to Nicky’s. That’s why he hasn’t appeared,” said McManus’s racing manager Frank Berry. “It’s a lovely race to run him in with a small field.”

The McManus team has won the Irish Champion Hurdle six times in all, a statistic in itself that means the first major Grade One prize of 2013 can hardly be billed as a total solo-show for Hurricane Fly. But even for all that, and how even Istabraq managed to fall at Leopardstown in his time, defeat for Hurricane Fly would be a major shock. In their pomp, the real top-notchers don’t tend to fluff their lines.

Pont Alexandre ready to excite again

Pont Alexandre can again provide that ‘loving feeling’ at Leopardstown tomorrow on what could turn out to be another bumper afternoon for the Ruby Walsh-Willie Mullins team.

Only the long odds-on Hurricane Fly could possibly elbow Pont Alexandre from being Mullins’s prime focus when he has just his second start in Ireland in the Grade Two Synergy Solutions Novice Hurdle.

Ireland’s first taste of the French bred saw him land the Grade One Navan Hurdle in December as the champion trainer broke the habits of a lifetime in pitching his hugely expensive new recruit straight into top-flight company.

If all the pre-race talk was about Don Cossack, all the important post-race analysis centred on a horse Mullins admitted to “falling in love with at first sight”, urging owner Rich Ricci to pay a massive price for him. His judgement looked spot-on at Navan and Pont Alexandre is already as low as 5 to 1 second favourite for the Neptune at Cheltenham.

Boston Bob completed the Navan-Leopardstown double last season and the new boy on the Closutton block is expected to do the same.

Walsh gave up the ride on Zuzka at Christmas to allow Patrick Mullins break the amateur record but he is firmly back in the plate tomorrow in the Listed mares hurdle and will also hope to score on Urano who has Some Article to beat in the opener. The Real Article can get Barry Geraghty among the winners.

Brian O’Connor

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