Arctic Fire burns bright as Mullins bags hat-trick
Arctic Fire further enhanced Willie Mullins' stranglehold on the Champion Hurdle market by cruising to a first Grade One success at Fairyhouse yesterday.
Throughout last season, the unfashionably-bred six-year-old son of Soldier Hollow spent most of his time banging his head against brick walls like Faugheen and Hurricane Fly.
Exactly 12 months ago, he achieved the first of five successive placings in completed starts at the highest level when third in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle. Gallant in defeat was his lot.
Victory in yesterday's poorly contested edition of the Bar One Racing Hatton's Grace Hurdle was Arctic Fire's second in as many outings this term. It mightn't constitute blue-chip form in terms of the elite two-milers, but the keen-racing hooded gelding has gone a long way toward dispelling any perception of his being a nearly horse.
In deep ground that didn't play to Arctic Fire's strengths, Ruby Walsh eased him to the front coming to the final flight en route to a bloodless four-length defeat of Alpha Des Obeaux, with Gwencily Berbas third.
It was as comprehensive as the official ratings suggested it should be, despite the market being surprisingly cool on the 4/5 shot.
"The ratings told a story," Mullins mused after his third win in the €85,000 two-and-a-half-miler since 2010. "He was entitled to win and, looking at him beforehand, I'd say there is more improvement in him.
"He looked a bit big but he seems to race with a bit of a tummy. He jumped well and took a keen hold, but he has always been like that. He'll be in the two-milers at Christmas and my initial thought is that he will stay at home for the race at Leopardstown."
Arctic Fire was trimmed to 8/1 from 10/1 by Boylesports for the Champion Hurdle, with Peace And Co the only one in the first four in the ante-post betting not stabled in Closutton.
On a blustery afternoon, his triumph in the Wicklow Bloodstock colours completed a Grade One brace for Mullins and Walsh, as the Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle also went to script. Mullins' 1/2 favourite Long Dog clung on grimly from stablemate Bachasson, which didn't help its chance with some less than fluent leaps in the rear early on.
Paul Townend got after Bachasson and they were closing all the while, but Walsh coaxed Long Dog to its fifth win in a row and Mullins' fifth since 2008 in the two-mile event. He had positioned Rich Ricci's Long Dog just off the leader Baily Cloud before letting him stride on after the third-last flight. There was only a neck in it at the line with Gunnery Sergeant 14 lengths behind, and Mullins saw plenty to like in the displays of the first two.
"Ruby was in a great position the whole time and I thought the horse did everything right," he said.
"Bachasson was never at the races and he didn't appear to operate, whether it was down to the weather or the ground. He didn't jump, he didn't gallop and he just got into the race around the last bend. I thought he ran a tremendous race to get as close as he did. If they met again I don't know which one would win.
"One or both of them could go to Leopardstown. The French people tell me that Bachasson can go out in trip, while Long Dog could go out in trip any time he wants."
Mullins later combined with his son Patrick to complete a 7/1 treble courtesy of Gigginstown Stud's Lucky Pass (2/1 jt-fav) in the bumper.
However, he scratched Gigginstown's Outlander, his only declaration for the Drinmore Novices' Chase, due to a temperature. In his absence, Gordon Elliott, the apparent heir to his championship crown, prevailed with the same owner's 13/8 favourite No More Heroes.
The handsome Presenting gelding arguably produced the most exciting performance of the day. He fenced with real alacrity in the hands of Bryan Cooper and visibly quickened off the home turn before seeing off Monksland with a touch of style.
Jessies Dream gave Elliott a breakthrough Grade One win in the same contest in 2010, and this was his 13th in all.
"That is our third win in this race," Elliott said. "No More Heroes is tough, he stays and he jumps - he does everything. He was unlucky at Cheltenham last season but chasing is his game. The further he goes, the better he will be, and I'd say he will head for the three-mile Grade One at Leopardstown over Christmas.
"We'll put him in the Feltham Chase at Kempton as well to give us the option of maybe taking him over with Don Cossack."
No More Heroes is now vying with More Of That for RSA Chase favouritism, his odds tightening from 8/1 to 5/1. Elliott completed a quick double when rising star Jack Kennedy got Bless The Wings (11/2) up to thwart Forever Gold and Cootamundra in something of a sprint finish to the marathon three-mile-five-furlong Porterstown Handicap Chase.
Proceedings got underway with a thoroughly impressive Grade Three hurdle coup for Colin Kidd's Rashaan.
Bought out of Mick Halford's yard in February for just €8,500 after disappointing on its only Flat start for the Aga Khan, the Manduro gelding strode 13 lengths clear of the odds-on Missy Tata to stretch its unbeaten record over flights to three.
"That's a relief," beamed Mullins' Bagenalstown neighbour Kidd of the 5/1 shot. "Everything went smoothly and it's nice to have a good one like him. We will look at the Grade One at Christmas now."
Rashaan's odds for the Triumph Hurdle were slashed from 33/1 to as low as 14/1, and he was doubtless the best value acquisition of yesterday's big-race winners.
"There have been inquiries but no solid offers," Kidd revealed. "He looks a cheap horse now and I'm not sure Mr (Victor) Treacy would sell anyway."
Nenagh handler James Grace took the handicap hurdle with 14/1 shot De Benno. Shane Shortall's mount only got in as the first reserve, but the partnership took their chance in dramatic fashion.
In a three-way dash to the line, De Benno emerged a head and a neck to the good over Harvey Logan and Wilcos Mo Chara.
"I thought it was maybe madness coming up on such a big day but thankfully it has worked out," Grace beamed. "Shane is a super jock and the horse never had as light a weight; I'd say the horse thought he was running without anyone on his back."
Disappointingly, attendance on the day plunged 21pc on last year to 4,873.