Ruby shines as Hurricane storms to Champion Double
Hurricane Fly became the first horse to regain the Stan James Champion Hurdle since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 as he showed substantial guts to go with his undoubted class at Cheltenham.
Winner of the race in 2011 but beaten into third when an odds-on favourite 12 months ago, plenty doubted the nine-year-old's chances in the weeks and days leading up to his Festival return.
However, his army of fans showed their support on the day and by post-time Hurricane Fly was once again a warm order as the 13-8 favourite.
Once the tapes went up, last year's champion Rock On Ruby was sent into the lead in the first-time blinkers, closely tracked by Zarkandar and Countrywide Flame, with Hurricane Fly further back under Ruby Walsh.
Supporters of the Willie Mullins-trained market leader would have been worried at halfway as Walsh was already getting lower in the saddle.
But he began to pick up coming down the hill and was in the lead soon after jumping the second-last.
Hurricane Fly jumped the final flight smoothly and dug deep on the run-in to score by two and a half lengths.
Rock On Ruby ran a tremendous race to finish second in defence of his crown, while lasts year's Triumph Hurdle hero Countrywide Flame similarly ran a blinder in third.
Walsh said: "I can't say I was overly confident - from the word 'go' he didn't travel as well as he can.
"He's an unbelievably big heart for a small horse.
"He made a mistake or two, but he's as tough as nails.
"I was in front a good two furlongs too soon.
"He pinged the last and I'm glad he got it back to show everyone he's a true champion hurdler."
Mullins said: "We knew he was in good form all year.
"He was wining by far what I thought were the best trials in Ireland and we got luck in running.
"Last year was so disappointing, but since he came back this year he has been much heavier and stronger.
"Every gallop he's had, every race he's had, he's bounced back and taken it all in his stride.
"He was so aggressive in the pre-parade ring and he wanted to get on with the job.
"I was a bit worried at halfway. They'd gone such a pace and Ruby must have known that, too.
"Tactically, Ruby has a clock in his head and confidence in this horse as well.
"That was a big plus for this horse as a lot of other guys would maybe have taken the stick out at halfway to keep him with the pace.
"Ruby just stayed where the horse was comfortable.
"He's the champion hurdler again now.
"We'll look at Punchestown now, but I'm also very keen on the French Champion Hurdle.
"It's over three miles and one (furlong) but I think he'll stay."
Rock On Ruby's trainer Harry Fry said: "We've gone out there and served it up to them and just beaten by a true champion and a better horse on the day.
"We couldn't have asked for anymore. As always, he's put his all on the line and galloped from start to finish.
"Obviously we would have been delighted to have won, but to finish second to a champion like Hurricane Fly is no disgrace.
"It looked as though we might just have him (Hurricane Fly) on the ropes, but he is a true champion and has picked us up.
"Noel Fehily said he's run as well, if not better, than last year."
Trainer John Quinn said of Countrywide Flame: "You had three Champion Hurdle winners, two Triumph Hurdle winners and a Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner - this was a really good renewal.
"If he's OK he could go for the two-and-a-half-mile race at Aintree (Aintree Hurdle) and if he's OK after that I'll think about the Chester Cup.
"If he's OK he'll run and if he comes back and tells us he needs a break he'll have a break.
"He's as tough as boots and doesn't know when he's beaten."