HURRICANE Fly emulated the great Istabraq by claiming a fourth triumph in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.
The Willie Mullins-trained ten-year-old was the 4-7 favourite to secure an extraordinary 19th Grade One success and travelled with his usual zest in the hands of Ruby Walsh.
He quickened up to lead approaching the final flight, but Our Conor threw down a serious challenge. The two fought out a pulsating finish, but Hurricane Fly was going away again in the closing strides under a jubilant Walsh.
Hurricane Fly had comfortably beaten Our Conor and Jezki in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, but connections of the latter pair had reasons to believe they could bridge the gap this time.
As he did last month, Captain Cee Bee took the four runners along, with Hurricane Fly his closest pursuer, ahead of Our Conor and the free-going Jezki.
There was little to choose between Hurricane Fly and Our Conor jumping the final flight and, just for a moment, it looked like Dessie Hughes’ charge might be getting on top.
But Hurricane Fly, who suffered an injury scare earlier in the week with a bruised foot, roared back and was a length and a half to the good at the line. Captain Cee Bee stuck to his guns to ensure fellow JP McManus-owned runner Jezki finished last of the four.
Walsh said: “I just rode the race as I found it. In fairness to Hurricane, he quickened up well. He wasn’t great at the last, but, when I got serious with him, he found plenty. Stamina was never going to be an issue.”
Mullins said: “That was a huge relief. I have huge respect for the horse to do what he did, coming off the bit of work he did during the week. If he had been an ordinary horse he wouldn’t have run today. It was his worst bit of work ever. I was so disappointed coming off the gallops. I was saying to myself, ‘Is the dream over with him and has he had enough?’ Thankfully, we found he had a bruised foot. He seemed fine the next morning and he’s been fine since.
“I thought when Our Conor came upsides him at the last he was beat. It was the first time he’s ever missed the last but he showed his guts and he battled back.”
Meanwhile, Paul Nicholls is confident Big Buck’s will “improve enormously” for the run after finishing a close third on his return to action in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday.
The four-times World Hurdle hero was aiming for a 19th consecutive victory in the Grade Two contest and travelled powerfully in the hands of first-time rider Sam Twiston-Davies on his first start in well over a year.
The 11-year-old led his rivals over the final flight, but was caught on the run-in by shock winner Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross, beaten three-quarters of a length.
Nicholls admits it was disappointing to see his stable star’s winning run come to an end, but feels there are plenty of positives to take from the run ahead of his bid to regain his World Hurdle crown back at Cheltenham on 13 March.
“He has come out of the race absolutely fine. His legs are cold and he is absolutely A1, which is obviously the main thing,” said the Ditcheat handler.
“He travelled with all his old enthusiasm and jumped great and he has just got a bit tired after the last [hurdle], which he was entitled to after 14 months off. I think the ground from the bend to the last was as soft as it was anywhere on the track and it has probably just found him out, but all in all there were a lot of positives to take from the race.
“I think he’ll improve enormously for the run. The key to him is better ground. All his best runs have come on better ground and hopefully we’ll get that at Cheltenham in March.”