Hurricane Fly out to put great Istabraq in the shade
Ulster-owned Hurricane Fly will strive to go one better than the mighty Istabraq on Sunday by claiming a record fifth Irish Champion Hurdle success on a Leopardstown card that looks destined to be defined by quality over quantity.
Willie Mullins' diminutive dual Cheltenham hero will again face last year's Prestbury Park victor Jezki in the BHP Insurances-sponsored €110,000 two-mile showpiece, with Jessica Harrington's JP McManus-owned seven-year-old one of seven entries left standing in the Grade One.
Given that Mullins' Faugheen, a top-priced 5/4 ante-post favourite for the big race in March, would only be expected to run should Hurricane be ruled out for any reason, Sunday's contest will likely come down to another duel between The Fly and Jezki, winner of the Down Royal Festival's big WKD Hurdle under Ulster great Tony McCoy in 2013.
There is a stone gap to the next highest-rated entry, Mullins' Arctic Fire, which ran a respectable third when the two main protagonists fought out that epic duel over Christmas.
Despite Jezki gaining the upper hand in the Cotswolds last year and subsequently confirming that superiority at Punchestown in the spring, Hurricane Fly has excelled on his favoured deep ground this term to conquer him twice more, that latest brave Leopardstown victory extending his incredible Grade One haul to a scarcely believable 21.
Mullins' tenacious 11-year-old - owned by Rose Boyd of Crossgar and George Creighton from Belfast - has never been beaten in nine starts at the Foxrock venue, and he is no bigger than 8/11 to make it a perfect 10, with Jezki, the only other horse trading at single figure odds, a 6/4 shot to peg the score back to 4-3.
The ground on the hurdle track at Leopardstown is being given as yielding to soft, soft in places, and the prospect of conditions drying out would doubtless be to Jezki's cause.
Another fascinating encounter is in store in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase at the same meeting.
Just five of the original 10 contenders remain after yesterday's final entry stage, but what a quintet they are, with Mullins' relentless Un De Sceaux a shade of odds-on with Paddy Power to successfully make the step up to Grade One company.
A 12-length winner at Fairyhouse last month after tipping up three-out on his Thurles debut, the otherwise unbeaten seven-year-old is likely to cross swords with McManus' Gilgamboa and Gigginstown Stud's Clarcam.
Deeply impressive in both chasing starts, the Enda Bolger-trained Gilgamboa is extremely highly regarded, as is Gordon Elliott's Clarcam, which capitalised on Vautour's blunder to destroy Grade One opposition at Leopardstown over Christmas.
Mullins' exciting Drinmore hero Valseur Lido would be considered an unlikely runner at this stage, though Noel Meade is understood to be contemplating dropping the Drinmore runner-up Apache Stronghold back to the minimum trip after his second to Don Poli over three miles last time.
The novices hurdle also promises to be fascinating, with Black Hercules and Arbre De Vie among Mullins' potential starters in a Grade Two that could feature Elliott's No More Heroes, Dermot Weld's Windsor Park and Charles Byrnes' Lite Duties.