Big plans for Hurricane Fly
It was billed as a definitive test of Hurricane Fly's status as top dog and the champion duly reasserted his impeccable superiority by claiming a stirring edition of the Ryanair Hurdle in emphatic style for Ruby Walsh.
The Irish Champion Hurdle next month followed by a shot at a Cheltenham Festival hat-trick in March are now very much on the agenda.
On the eve of his 10th birthday at Leopardstown yesterday, Hurricane Fly – owned by George Creighton from Belfast and Rose Boyd of Crossgar – faced the winners of nine other Grade Ones, including Jezki, winner of last month's WKD Hurdle at the Down Royal Festival under Tony McCoy, and Our Conor.
In a tactical renewal of the €100,000 two-miler, dual Champion Hurdler Hurricane Fly came from last to first en route to a two-and-a-half-length triumph over Jezki, again ridden by McCoy.
Walsh's mount returned an odds-against SP in Ireland for the first time in over three years at 11/10.
"It was a hugely tactical race," champion trainer Willie Mullins beamed after the star of his relentless Carlow juggernaut came back to a raucous welcome.
"Going around last wasn't in the game plan, but Ruby was very cool on him. He flew the last and Ruby said he was idling in front. The challenge was to get him fit enough to beat Our Conor and Jezki without leaving everything here today.
"I didn't want to fire everything at him with big days like the Irish and English Champion Hurdles to come and then Punchestown.
"I'm happy with what he has done here, though, beating the best of the Irish horses. He's improving all the time."
Hurricane Fly, just third favourite behind My Tent Or Yours and The New One to complete a hat-trick in March after being trimmed to 4/1, is a tireless 18-time Grade One-winning machine. Period.
"He's a great little horse," Walsh gushed afterwards.
"It was great the reception he got from the crowd, they appreciated him today. I'd say he's the best of all time."
On the fourth day of Christmas, the healthy 10,182 Foxrock crowd were treated to yet another gripping dust-up between Walsh and McCoy in the other Grade One.
Walsh looked sure to double up on Morning Assembly in the Topaz Novice Chase, but McCoy gained revenge for Jezki's defeat by eventually coaxing JP McManus' improving Galway Plate hero Carlingford Lough (5/1) to a length-and-a-half success.
Ulsterman McCoy said: "I probably rode him too aggressively in the Drinmore (second to Don Cossack) as he's inclined to jump a bit to the left. He's a good, tough seasoned handicapper at this stage."