The four year old Fiscal Focus is an intriguing 'unknown-factor' going into Leopardstown's BHP Irish Champion Hurdle but the youngster faces a mammoth battle against that most stalwart of champions, Hurricane Fly, in Sunday's €110,000 highlight.
Hurricane Fly is seeking a unique five-in-a-row in Ireland’s most prestigious hurdles prize and bookmakers reckon even at eleven years of age, he is still the horse to beat around Leopardstown, making the legendary world-record Grade One tally-holder as low as 4-6 favourite.
Just a single 11 year old has ever before won the Irish Champion Hurdle however. Brave Inca secured a memorably heart-warming success back in 2009 under Ruby Walsh and the champion jockey is hoping for a similar result this weekend.
Walsh has downplayed talk of a 'Leopardstown-factor' with Hurricane Fly who is unbeaten in nine starts at the Dublin track, all at Grade One level. It is a record in contrast to Cheltenham where he has won twice won the Champion Hurdle, but where he has also been a beaten favourite twice. Good record "He obviously has a good record around Leopardstown but that's probably because the races he tends to run in are at Leopardstown," he said. "It takes two good horses to make a race. Jezki is a Champion Hurdle winner and when you have horses of equal ability and stature it makes for a very good race."
A total of just seven entries remain in the big race after the five-day stage, including Jezki and Hurricane Fly’s younger stable companion Faugheen, a hot favourite for Cheltenham glory, but who Mullins has indicated is more likely to head straight for the festival in March.
Every other entry bar Fiscal Focus ran in the Ryanair Hurdle at Christmas when Hurricane Fly edged out Jezki in a thrilling finish with another Mullins horse, Arctic Fire, back in third.
Fiscal Focus was an unheralded newcomer to jumping going into Christmas but made an immediate impact when securing a 33-1 debut success in a Grade Two on St Stephen’s Day. He is currently as low as 12-1 for the Triumph Hurdle in March but ranked as high as 33-1 again for his second National Hunt start.
However his trainer Des McDonogh has a long history with the Irish Champion Hurdle, including when the legendary Monksfield ran in the race several times in the 1970s, and when Herbert United secured the spoils in 1986.
The support of top trainer Jim Bolger, whose wife Jackie owns Fiscal Focus, has helped revitalise McDonogh's recent fortunes and Bolger too knows how to win the race – and with a four year old. Select handful Bolger trained juvenile Nordic Surprise was the last four year old to win in 1991 and the following year Bolger won it again with Chirkpar.
Sunday's other Grade One, the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase, has just five remaining contenders but it is a select handful with the Cheltenham favourite Un De Sceaux likely to be taken on by the Grade One course and distance winner Clarcam as well as the unbeaten-over-fences Gilgamoba. The Grade One runner up Apache Stronghold is also a likely starter.
Ground conditions at Leopardstown are currently “yielding to soft” on the hurdles course and “soft” on the steeplechase track.
Conditions will also be testing at Fairyhouse where Gordon Elliott – who has left his Triumph winner Tiger Roll in Sunday's big race – can score with a couple of promising novices.
Altiepix was only seven lengths off Vigil in a hot bumper over Christmas and prior to that had found only Alpha Des Obeaux too good in a hurdle. The €110,000 purchase Boris de Blae will have to be very smart to beat the Tramore bumper winner in the second of the maiden hurdles.
Elliott also has Balhir Du Mathan in the Beginners Chase and a step up to three miles looks just what this ex-French runner needs. The 138 rated Thunder And Roses sets a fair standard but Elliott’s horse looks one to follow at the distance.
Zipporah’s pace-forcing style will mean a gruelling stamina test in the near-three mile handicap hurdle but she has 14 lengths in hand of Bloomsday on Thurles form and the latter being 8lbs better off doesn’t appear to be enough to fully bridge that gap.