Hurricane still flying at Punchestown
Ulster-owned Hurricane Fly showed that there is still life in his legs and steel in his heart with a thrilling triumph over the reigning champion hurdler Jezki at Punchestown yesterday.
The Grade One winning machine, owned by Belfast's George Creighton and Crossgar's Rose Boyd, took his record of top level wins to 20.
A year ago, Willie Mullins' hugely popular 10-year-old had laboured home in the Stanjames.com Morgiana Hurdle at odds of 1/16. He built on that to add two further Grade Ones at Leopardstown, condemning Jessica Harrington's rising star to minor honours on both occasions.
However, when the ground dried up at Cheltenham and Punchestown in the spring, Jezki came into his own, and he was sent off at odds of 8/13 here to confirm his superiority.
Back on testing conditions, though, Hurricane Fly excelled.
Both of the main protagonists pecked two-out as they chased down leader and eventual third Little King Robin, with the Mark Walsh-ridden Jezki giving Hurricane Fly and Ruby Walsh a tow all the while.
The wily Walsh waited for his legendary mount's new-found nemesis to make a move, before pouncing as they crossed the last flight, at which Jezki was again clumsy.
Hurricane Fly capitalised, scampering clear in terrier-like fashion for a two-and-a-quarter-length success at odds of 15/8.
"I thought I had him fitter than he was coming here last year," the champion trainer admitted of the enduring star of his illustrious stable.
"Ruby was tactically very good on him as the onus was on the champion Jezki to go after the pace, so it suited us. Jezki had to commit and that gave us an advantage.
"Having said that, Hurricane Fly seemed to be more back to himself. That was a better performance than his last two runs last season, which is something for his first outing. He is getting older, but all being well he will stick to the tried-and-tested route now."
Hurricane Fly's third successive win in the €80,000 two-miler took his record of top-level wins to 20, and few of the previous 19 warmed the heart as much. He returned to a rapturous reception in recognition of a trademark display of class and courage.
It was reminiscent of the Haydock welcome that Kauto Star got on his comeback as an 11-year-old in 2011 after being prematurely written off, a point alluded to by Walsh.
"He is a wonderful horse," the champion jockey gushed. "It is hard to get too excited on the day that's in it as it is a sad day for racing with Dessie Hughes dying.
"Some people may have had their doubts about the horse, but Kauto Star was also written off a number of times, and I was probably the most pessimistic person here. That's racing; it's all about opinions and he got a wonderful reception from the crowd here.
"Form can often be temporary, but class is permanent."
Harrington magnanimously conceded that Jezki "was beaten by a better horse on the day," and confirmed that he is also Leopardstown-bound. The race sponsors had offered a standout 40/1 about Hurricane Fly wresting his Cheltenham crown back in March.
They subsequently cut the former dual champion to 14/1, as Jezki was eased from 9/2 to 6/1. In the two-mile-six-furlong Grade Two novices' chase, Mullins and Walsh were denied with Indevan by Shanahan's Turn.
Henry de Bromhead's deeply promising six-year-old took full advantage of a below-par turn from Very Wood to maintain his 100pc record over fences under 18-year-old Jonathan Burke.
"He jumped deadly and settled well," De Bromhead said of the 11/4 shot.
"Johnny gave him a super ride. For a horse that stays so well he has a great turn of foot. We'll go to Leopardstown and put him away for Cheltenham then. The dream is still alive."
JP McManus' Noel Meade-trained Chancol (3/1) could also head to the Foxrock venue over the festive period after Paul Carberry brilliantly cajoled him past the pace-setting Un Beau Roman without resorting to his whip in the two-mile edition.
Un Beau Roman's trainer Mullins later completed a double when the debutant Bordini (11/8 fav) landed the bumper, while his jockey Mikey Fogarty took the handicap hurdle aboard Liz Doyle's Pairofbrowneyes.