Cheltenham: As expected, Ruby rocked them on Hurricane Fly
There could be nothing merely ceremonial about the down-and-dirty business of bringing an end to the unbeaten record of a horse as furiously committed as Peddlers Cross.
Even so, long before their duel from the last hurdle here yesterday, there was already a sense that the coronation of Hurricane Fly had now become inexorable. The die was cast from the moment, two hours previously, that Ruby Walsh passed the post on the first winner of the Festival.
For here, however briefly, was a champion prepared to suspend the humility learned by all jump jockeys in the daily possibility of coming home from work in a wheelchair.
Walsh stood tall in the stirrups, swayed back with his whip aloft, and held a pose for the grandstand. It was like watching a painter whisk a sheet away to reveal his latest masterpiece. So what, he seemed to be asking, have you got to say about that?
He knew that he had earned this fleeting candour in his genius. It was only 11 days previously that he had returned to the saddle, four months after breaking a leg at Down Royal.
In the meantime, in another fall at Naas, he had acquired a gash under his right eye that grotesquely measured the fine margins of his calling.
Only on Saturday, at Sandown, did he ride his first winner since November — and at that stage it was still not apparent whether Willie Mullins would let him ride Hurricane Fly in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Walsh's young understudy, Paul Townend, had ridden the horse in seven of his eight previous races.
Mullins, it turns out, never hesitated. For all Townend's precocious cool, he could not conscionably discard the most prolific jockey in the Festival's 100-year history.
“Ruby hadn't sat on this horse for months before today,” he said.
“But you can't leave Ruby Walsh on the sidelines when you have the favourite for the Champion Hurdle.”
And as soon as he saw Walsh win the opener on Al Ferof, Mullins knew he had been right.
Last into the parade ring before the big race, and wearing ear-plugs on account of his simmering
nature, Hurricane Fly looked exactly what he was — a horse bred for Epsom on Derby day. And that was precisely how Walsh had settled on his strategy for the race.
“In my opinion, I was riding a horse with Flat racing speed against National Hunt horses,” he explained afterwards. “And that's how I was going to ride him.”
Sure enough, even though the pace was better than had been feared, Hurricane Fly proved dangerously exuberant in the early stages.
It is a measure of the raw talent that qualifies him as perhaps the best hurdler since Istabraq that he was still on the bridle as Walsh angled wider of traffic approaching at the last hurdle.
Peddlers Cross had followed Oscar Whisky through at the previous flight and it would clearly be tough to wrest away even his narrow lead.
But the heavily backed Menorah was already in trouble, his fate sealed by a mistake at the last, and would ultimately be passed for fourth by Townend on Mullins's second string, Thousand Stars.
Donald McCain, whose supervision of Peddlers Cross has confirmed him as one of the best trainers in Britain, meanwhile watched with pride as his horse harried Hurricane Fly all the way to the line.
But the winner matched his brilliance with grit and stamina, and stemmed his rival's rally by just over a length; it was another five back to Oscar Whisky.
In trying times for the Irish sport, Hurricane Fly was followed deliriously into the winner's enclosure by half the country.
He has now won eight times in nine Grade One starts and you have to doubt how Binocular would have coped with these leaders of a new generation.
Indeed, bookmakers offer of |5-1 against Hurricane Fly retaining his crown next year will tempt anyone prepared to overlook the fact that he had missed the two previous Festivals with setbacks.
If his anointment here was overdue, then so was a first Champion Hurdle for Mullins. Both as a trainer and a gentleman, Mullins is a credit to his father, Paddy — who died last autumn at 91, and won this race with Dawn Run in 1984.
“When he led on the run-in I like to think Dad was there urging us on,” Mullins said.
“It was from him that I learned to have patience with horses, and that's been the key to this one.
“You have to be prepared to wait and wait. He's very hyper, and it would have been a big challenge bringing him here as a four-year-old. But he didn't turn a hair today until he got to the start.”
Trainer and jockey went on to show the extent of their patience and cool respectively when Quevega, once again making her reappearance in the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle, coasted through to win the race for a third year running. Sparky May ran her heart out in second for Kieran Burke and Pat Rodford, but they were up against genuine Goliaths in Walsh and Mullins.
“I'd rather have Ruby half-fit than most other fellows fully fit,” Mullins said.
“He's our stable jockey and Paul has had a fantastic innings while he was out. I called him aside the other day and said that I would be putting Ruby on the horse at Cheltenham, and Paul said he understood.
In fact I think Ruby was more disappointed when I told him that making Paul champion at home would be our focus to the season's end, that he wouldn't have all the choice rides, if he didn't mind. I think he did!”
Walsh knows he has earned his privileges. This is not a case of egotistical entitlement.
It is simply a reflection of the fact that nobody else could be preceded to the most exacting day in his calendar by such pain and doubt, and come away with three winners.
“But that's what keeps you motivated,” he said.
“What keeps you going when you're lying in tears on the floor of the gym. It's the dream of days like this that keeps pushing you on.”