Fly all set for Festival lift-off
As Ulster-owned Hurricane Fly was led into the Leopardstown winners' enclosure to a raucous welcome after emulating the great Istabraq with a stirring fourth Irish Champion Hurdle triumph, there was a sense that he might finally be getting the appreciation he deserves.
Just as he had done in reclaiming his Cheltenham crown in dramatic fashion last March, Willie Mullins' exceptional 10-year-old showed that his rare talent is matched only by his inexorable tenacity as he won a record 19th Grade One contest, ahead of another shot at Festival glory.
When Our Conor served it up to him at the last flight in this absorbing encounter, Fly's tenure as top dog looked in danger.
However, despite a mistake at the last, Fly – owned by Rose Boyd from Crossgar and Belfast's George Creighton – got off the canvas to battle back for a brave one-and-a-half-length victory.
What a champion Hurricane Fly is. He came into this €110,000 event on the back of what Mullins described as "the worst bit of work he has ever done" during the week, with a bruised foot identified as the cause for his sub-par showing on the gallops.
Incredibly, he emerged with his towering reputation further enhanced, and there was a poignant scene in the enclosure as this most bullish of horses endeared himself to the crowd.
In a moment, he went from his terrier-like self kicking out, to patiently allowing his head be patted by the crowd as his groom Gail Carlisle led him around.
"I have huge respect for the horse, and he is just where you'd want him to be now ahead of Cheltenham," said Mullins.
Walsh, who punched the air as he passed the post, added: "He has always had heart; he has stamina, he has pace and he jumps – he is the perfect racehorse."
After stretching his unbeaten record at Leopardstown to eight, Fly was trimmed to 5/2 for a third Champion Hurdle in March.