Hurricane Fly is ready for Cheltenham Festival take-off
Paul Townend is under no illusions about the task facing Ulster-owned Hurricane Fly ahead of his bid to regain the Champion Hurdle crown for a second time tomorrow.
It is four years since the incredible 11-year-old clinched the two-mile championship at Prestbury Park for the first time and he became the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to reclaim his crown with a rousing display two years ago.
However, the 22-time Grade One winner - owned by Rose Boyd from Crossgar and George Creighton of Belfast - ran perhaps the most disappointing race of his career when fourth 12 months ago and despite defeating last year's champion Jezki three times this season, Hurricane Fly has been deserted by Ruby Walsh in favour of red-hot favourite Faugheen.
Townend will get back on board for the first time competitively since steering Hurricane Fly to the first of his five Irish Champion Hurdle wins in 2011 - and could not be happier with the horse's condition.
"He's a great spare ride to pick up. I suppose nobody ever thought Hurricane Fly would be a second string, but I'm delighted to get the ride on him and I can't wait," Townend said.
"I suppose being realistic he's up against it. He's an 8-1 shot for a reason, but saying that he's been there, he's done it and he's in the form of his life at home.
"I'm just hoping for a big run and it would be nice to win a third Champion Hurdle.
"A lot of it is just natural ability, but it's his will to win as well. He has the heart of a lion and he can just run faster than the rest of them," added Townend.
The Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki - winner of the Down Royal Festival's big WKD Hurdle in 2013 under Tony McCoy - has had a similar preparation to last year in that he has found Hurricane Fly too strong on home soil on each occasion, but the roles were comprehensively reversed at Cheltenham 12 months ago.
The JP McManus-owned runner - who will again be ridden by McCoy in what will be the Ulster great's last ever Cheltenham Festival before retirement - enjoyed one final reportedly impressive piece of work ahead of his trip across the water, and Harrington is delighted with her stable star.
"He did a nice bit of work the other day. I don't know who was looking at him working, but he pleased me. I wouldn't say any more than that," she said.
McManus has a second hope in the shape of the Edward O'Grady-trained Kitten Rock.
Willie Mullins' formidable battalion was quickly into its stride after arriving at Cheltenham yesterday ahead of the Festival.
Faugheen enjoyed a breeze at the track in the hands of regular work rider John Codd, while Hurricane Fly stretched his legs.
The opening day promises to be massive for the Mullins team, with the highly-touted Douvan, who was given gentle exercise by Gail Carlisle, all the rage for the eagerly anticipated opening Supreme Novices Hurdle.
Un De Sceaux is odds-on for the Arkle Trophy, as is Annie Power for the OBLG Mares Hurdle, and they were seen in action.
Meanwhile, Larne trainer Stuart Crawford highlighted that his horses are in very good form ahead of Cheltenham - the four-day extravaganza starting tomorrow - at Naas yesterday when claiming the Grade Three Novice Chase with Fine Rightly, owned and bred by County Antrim-based Patricia Duffin.
The local winner, with Davy Russell aboard, was sent into the lead a mile from home when heading the front running Azorian and repelled all challengers over the final fences.
Crawford, who was on hand despite being presently on crutches, said: "We have always thought a lot of this horse.
"He's a smashing jumper - almost a showjumper as he is still a bit careful. He picked up a couple of hurdle races last season after winning his bumper on his debut at Ayr. He's going the right way over fences."
Festival-bound Crawford added: "Montana Belle will run in the Cheltenham Festival bumper and Muirhead, which is owned by Joe and Pat Sloan (from Templepatrick) will take his chance in the Cheltenham Foxhunters."