Hurricane Fly can create a storm
Hurricane Fly's shot at history in the Cheltenham Festival's Champion Hurdle is sure to set pulses racing in Northern Ireland today.
Owned by George Creighton from Belfast and Rose Boyd of Crossgar, Hurricane Fly will go off favourite in today's showpiece (3.20pm) but victory is far from assured.
Hurricane Fly – now nine years old – won the race in 2011 but could only finish third last year.
Only one horse has ever regained the title in the 86-year history of the race – Comedy Of Errors in 1975.
And in the last 20 years, only one nine-year-old has won the Champion Hurdle – Rooster Booster in 2003.
Champion trainer Willie Mullins' charge will be ridden by Ruby Walsh, who could face a strong challenge from his friend and rival, Ulsterman AP McCoy, who rides Binocular in the big race.
Binocular is one of five horses attracting money in the betting – Hurricane Fly is expected to go off favourite at about 9-4, but Zarkandar, Rock On Ruby and Grandouet have all been supported.
Lewis Creighton, grandson of owner George Creighton and spokesman for connections, said: "You'd have to say that five horses of the nine in the race have a real chance.
"It's certainly a very competitive Champion Hurdle.
"But we are confident Hurricane Fly is the best horse in the race and if he produces the goods we would hope he will win.
"Things just didn't go right for him last year, for whatever reason.
"But he's a fantastic horse and if he wins, it would be his greatest ever achievement.
"You only have to look at the history of the race to see how difficult it is to regain the Champion Hurdle.
"We could not have a better man riding the horse than Ruby Walsh, while Paul Townend does good work with him at Willie Mullins' yard."
Walsh too has great faith in the horse, who he has ridden in eight successive races.
"Everybody has to have an opinion and create an opinion. My opinion is that I love Hurricane Fly," he said.
"I can't understand why the bookmakers appear to be all out to get him.
"I'm delighted to be riding him – I'd hate to be laying him – and I think he'll take all the beating.
"I love the little horse – I've won a Champion Hurdle on him – and his form has been rock solid.
"He's had a great season and preparation right from the word go this year, compared to last year."
Hurricane Fly has won 11 of his last 12 races, the only blot that third place last year when he trailed home behind winner Rock On Ruby and Overturn after again being sent off as the favourite, carrying the hot 4-6 tag.
It was a crushing outcome for a horse being widely tipped to become one of the legends of the sport.
Hurricane Fly has followed up that defeat with two wins at Punchestown – one of those last season – and two at Leopardstown.
But it is in the unforgiving furnace of the Cheltenham Festival that true champions are forged and today's race represents a make-or-break for Hurricane Fly.
If he wins, he will be rightly hailed as a great.
Defeat would be difficult to bounce back from, with the Champion Hurdle crown surely beyond him at the age of 10.
Only greats Sea Pigeon and Hatton's Grace have known Champion Hurdle success at 10 plus.
Maybe a few more big-race victories in Ireland would still be within reach but surely his days at the very pinnacle of the sport would be numbered from 2014 onwards.
Today's prize pot is £370,000 with £210,000 going to connections of the winner.
Hurricane Fly certainly owes nothing to owners or punters having racked up 14 Grade One victories over the years.
But now comes the moment of truth when Hurricane Fly's legacy will be defined by one race.
Willie Mullins is approaching the showdown in confident mood.
Mullins said: "He travelled well, he's in great form and I'm happy with conditions.
"I'm just happy with how everything has gone so far.
"He's doing everything right this year so I'm just hoping.I don't think pace is a worry for Hurricane Fly.
"He has had three runs under his belt (this season), he has done everything right and bounced back for every run right compared to last year when we just got one run into him before we went over there.
"We're very pleased and hopeful at this point."