Canyon picks up baton from mighty Hurricane
Nichols Canyon evoked memories of the mighty Hurricane Fly by invoking his tenacious battling spirit to overhaul Identity Thief in a pulsating finish to the Ryanair Hurdle.
In the gathering gloom as the €100,000 two-miler and Leopardstown's Christmas Festival reached its climax, the 2/5 favourite looked in real trouble. Bryan Cooper had set out to make life difficult for Nichols Canyon.
It sounds simple but so often the peerless Ruby Walsh is granted a soft lead to dictate things at will on Willie Mullins's hot-pots.
Cooper, buoyed by a second Grade One success of the week aboard No More Heroes in the preceding event, was intent on not letting that happen here on Henry de Bromhead's Fighting Fifth Hurdle victor.
The underdog soon led, only forfeiting the advantage when Walsh eased Graham Wylie's keen-running Nichols Canyon to the front at the third flight.
When Walsh's mount came back to him two-out, Cooper took the fight to him again. Briefly, his recalcitrance looked sure to yield a valuable reward.
Identity Thief swung for home seemingly in command, but Nichols Canyon wouldn't go away.
Crucially, Walsh was able to hold his position on the inside. He had been rowing away, but only with hands and heels. He finally gave Nichols Canyon one smack before the last and then threw the kitchen sink at him after it.
The response wasn't instant, but his partner showed tremendous battling qualities to pull two lengths clear in gruelling conditions.
Hurricane Fly had won the race four times in the previous five years and this gritty triumph was cut from the same cloth as his tended to be.
"He mightn't have Hurricane Fly's zip or his speed, but he has his stamina and his aggression," Mullins said in reference to Nichols Canyon.
"It was sheer toughness that won it. Watching it, I was wondering if Ruby's decision to go on when he did might have used up his petrol, but he felt that the pace was slackening. Keeping his position on the inside meant that he was able to get a breather into him.
"A lot of horses might have backed out of the gap and this fellow is small, but he put his head down bravely.
"We'll see how he comes out of this but he has had a hard race, so we'll have to wait and see about the Irish Champion Hurdle."
As had been the case after Don Poli's Lexus Chase success, after witnessing a hard-earned win, the bookmakers shortened another horse for the respective Cheltenham event.
This time it was Nichols Canyon's stablmate Faugheen, which he beat in the Morgiana Hurdle, that was slashed to as low as 4/7 from 4/5 to retain his crown.
Nichols Canyon, despite securing his sixth Grade One three days shy of his sixth birthday, was eased slightly to a high of 7/1.
As he and Identity Thief roughed each other up, the one certainty was that Mullins or Gigginstown Stud would prevail. In total, they had a hand in six of the seven Grade One winners to emerge at the track this week.
Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown firm had plundered its third in a row when No More Heroes justified odds of 4/9 in the Neville Hotels Novices' Chase. Gordon Elliott's classy Presenting six-year-old landed in front six-out under Cooper, before cruising home nine lengths clear of Rule The World.
Cruelly, that ensured that Mouse Morris saddled the runners-up in those three Grade Ones, each of which also sported a version of the Gigginstown silks.
"He is a bit like myself, he just eats and sleeps," Elliott quipped of No More Heroes.
"He is a proper big, old-fashioned chaser. All he does is stay, so he could even be a horse for the four-miler at Cheltenham, depending on what Gigginstown want to do, but the RSA would be the obvious race for him. He is just a very good horse."
BoyleSports reacted by cutting No More Heroes from 5/1 to 3/1 clear ante-post favouritism for the RSA.
Elliott doubled up when JP McManus's Squouateur (11/4) took the handicap hurdle for Barry Geraghty, a feat Mullins replicated with Gigginstown's odds-on Lucky Pass in the bumper.
Jessica Harrington had the first two home in the mares' hurdle when the Mark Bolger-ridden Keppols Queen (14/1) drew clear of Rock On The Moor, while Athenry's Val O'Brien saddled his third winner in nine days when Clar Na Mionn (14/1) took the Martinstown Handicap Chase for Stephen Gray.
Jonathan Burke enjoyed his third win of the festival when Sandra Hughes' Acapella Bourgeois (6/1) made all in the maiden hurdle to reverse Fairyhouse form with the favourite Space Cadet. "It has been a great few days," Burke admitted. "This fellow does it the hard way and is improving."
A final-day crowd of 9,150 saw the four-day tally fall by 6pc to 54,891, while the bookmakers' total turnover was down 21pc on 2014 to €2,739,718.