Hurricane Fly set for lift-off
All the leading fancies have stood their ground for tomorrow's Stan James Champion Hurdle — an intriguing nine-runner feature on day one of a Cheltenham Festival that promises so much.
Ulster-owned Hurricane Fly is one of three previous winners on duty, with the 2010 hero Binocular, ridden by AP McCoy, joining him in the quest to become the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to win back the two-mile hurdling crown.
Rock On Ruby, so authoritative in victory under Noel Fehily last year, is the third, and it's worth noting that half a dozen horses have managed to retain the title in the 38 years since one managed to regain it.
The latest was Dessie Hughes' Hardy Eustace, which sported first-time blinkers when seeing off Rooster Booster in 2004.
In many ways, he and Rock On Ruby are strikingly similar, both grinding sorts that excelled in the Neptune a year prior to their Champion victory.
They are and were two frequently underestimated, game, unflashy horses that come into their own in the Cotswolds in the spring.
As such, the decision of rookie trainer Harry Fry to put first-time blinkers on the reigning champion in tomorrow's Grade One is deeply significant.
Indeed, it is the sort of inspired, forward-thinking move that is a hallmark of his former employer Paul Nicholls, who used the very same tactic in masterminding his first Gold Cup success with See More Business in 1999.
The potential negative for Rock On Ruby is that the ground will be soft tomorrow, as he might well be happiest on a drier surface.
Hurricane Fly, on the other hand, will relish the conditions, with just three of his 14 stunning Grade One triumphs achieved when the words soft or heavy weren't in the official going description. There is no doubt that the 2011 winner — owned by George Creighton from Belfast and Rose Boyd of Crossgar — has been on far better terms with himself this season compared to last, but that doesn't mean this will simply fall his way either.
History tells us that horses of his vintage — nine years old — struggle to cope with the intense demands of this unrelenting test of speed and agility.
Only one, Rooster Booster in 2003, has achieved glory at that age in the past 20 years, with just one other doing so in the previous 10 years.
That said, Ruby Walsh's mount appeals as being far more likely to buck the trend than Binocular, especially now that the ground has gone.
Of the six runners charged with felling the former champions, Binocular's Nicky Henderson-trained stable-mate Grandouet cannot be underestimated with Barry Geraghty up, likewise Nicholls' Daryl Jacob-ridden Zarkandar.
Jason Maguire is on last year's Supreme Novices Hurdle winner Cinders And Ashes, with Denis O'Regan on the Triumph victor Countrywide Flame.
All told, it is a tip-top renewal, though the feeling persists that Hurricane Fly really needs to come up trumps to justify any claim to his being one of the two-mile hurdling giants of recent times. Many of us have been moved to compare him favourably with the mighty Istabraq.
However, Hurricane Fly has accumulated much of his record by bulldozing the same old tired faces on home soil. By and large, he has always done so with imperious style but champions that return to Cheltenham and beat the best around on an annual basis are the ones that we elevate to the loftiest pantheon of all.
Hurricane Fly had his excuses 12 months ago, so tomorrow is a glorious opportunity for him to add real substance to his legacy.
Belfast Telegraph Digital