Ruby Walsh: I haven't done things right on Hurricane Fly at Cheltenham
Published 10/03/2014 | 11:58
Hurricane Fly bids to join the immortals by securing a third victory in what promises to be an enthralling renewal of the Stan James Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on Tuesday.
Having recorded a world record 19 Grade One victories including four Irish Champion Hurdles, four Rabobank Champion Hurdles and his two Festival triumphs, the Willie Mullins-trained superstar's place in history is already secure.
The last 10-year-old to win hurdling's biggest prize was the brilliant Sea Pigeon in 1980, who, incidentally, also struck as an 11-year-old.
Hurricane Fly dispelled any notion a son of Montjeu would not come up the Cheltenham hill when striking gold in 2011, while 12 months ago he became the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to regain the Champion Hurdle crown having lost it.
Five horses have won the race three times in Hatton's Grace (1949, 1950, 1951), Sir Ken (1952, 1953, 1954), Persian War (1968, 1969, 1970), See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987) and Istabraq (1998, 1999, 2000).
A plethora of young pretenders lie in wait for Hurricane Fly's return to Prestbury Park, but Mullins could not be happier with his pride and joy after assessing his well-being at the track on Monday morning.
Mullins said: "His preparation has gone well and he has travelled over well. He's been out this morning and we're very happy with him.
"He looks very good and appears in good form.
"It is a very hot race, as a Champion Hurdle should be, but we are just focusing on our own horse and we are very happy with where we are with him.
"The track looks very good and I haven't any concerns about the ground."
The general consensus is Hurricane Fly is not as effective at Cheltenham as he is at Leopardstown and Punchestown.
However, big-race jockey Ruby Walsh does not necessarily agree, apportioning plenty of blame on himself when assessing why the champion has not been as impressive as in his homeland.
"He was too free the first year. I sat too far back on him the second year - he wasn't 100 per cent - and last year I shouldn't have followed the ones in front," Walsh told Racing UK.
"They were going too fast and I followed them. I shouldn't have.
"Racing is about pace, about judgement. I knew they were going too fast. I should have backed my own judgement and stayed where I was but instead I was thinking of all the criticism I got the year before and I kept following them.
"That was the mistake I made and the horse got me out of it. It won't happen again.
"If I hadn't followed the pace last year I'd have arrived turning in hard on the bridle and he'd have blown everybody away. But he still managed to win.
"I don't think I've done things right on him at Cheltenham. The day I'll get it right, he'll show England what he's shown Ireland."
The horse rated by bookmakers as the biggest threat to Hurricane Fly's crown is local hope The New One, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies and ridden by his son, Sam.
The six-year-old has saved his very best efforts for Cheltenham, winning four of his six course starts, and was arguably most impressive when showing scintillating acceleration to win the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle at last year's Festival.
He has won twice from three starts this season and was last seen running fellow Champion Hurdle candidate My Tent Or Yours close in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, despite fluffing his lines at the final obstacle.
Twiston-Davies snr said: "Preparations have gone smoothly and it must be a plus that he has done so well at the course.
"I think it's the hottest (Champion Hurdle) there has been for a very long time, I don't know anything about the Irish horses, we haven't run against them at all but they're obviously a very strong team and we'll have to be at our best.
"I don't think his jumping's a problem, it was just such a shame he met that one hurdle wrong (at Kempton). I'm not worried about the pace, a slow pace will hurt the others as much as him."
His son and stable jockey said: "It's going to be a serious race, very, very competitive, but I love our horse to pieces, he's got all the right attributes.
"He's so relaxed, just a switched-off horse, but when you give him a kick in the belly or a slap around the shoulder it's amazing how quickly he can click through the gears.
"We're going in there with a solid chance - the others will take some beating but we'll give it our best shot."
Dessie Hughes saddled Hardy Eustace to win successive Champion Hurdles in 2004 and 2005 and this year relies on last season's Triumph Hurdle hero Our Conor.
The five-year-old has run creditably in defeat behind Hurricane Fly the last twice, most recently pushing the great horse all the way in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
He also has age statistics to overcome, with 2008 hero Katchit the only five-year-old in almost 30 years to take Champion Hurdle glory.
Hughes said: "I couldn't be happier with him, everything has gone well.
"He was never in a battle last year. The first day he ran he needed it and the second day he showed he had guts but probably showed he needed another run.
"It looks like Captain Cee Bee might set the pace, if he does it will be a truly-run race, just what we want."
Our Conor has been bought by Barry Connell since his Festival victory and the leading owner is thrilled to be represented in one of the meeting's championship events.
He told At The Races: "It would be enormous to win the either the Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle and those races are fiercely competitive. To even have a runner is an honour in itself and I'm looking forward to having a horse be competitive there.
"We saw what he did last year when he destroyed a top-class Triumph field and his campaign has been laid out by a master trainer whose prowess of peaking horses for the big day is nearly second to none, he did it twice with Hardy Eustace and I know he's very confident, very sweet on the horse.
"He put Hurricane Fly under pressure the last day but we were lucky to have a horse at all (after running on the Flat at Naas, October Handicap). When Dessie mentioned to Richard Hughes he was going to run him on the Flat, Richard rolled his eyes and said it was a rough race so we won't be doing that again as a prep run.
"He was stood in his box for three weeks after, which was a setback, but everything since then has gone great.
"He's stepped up each time and had a length and a half to find. Hurricane would be the better horse on the Flat so you'd expect a speed track to Leopardstown to suit him.
"What Our Conor wants is a decent test, he's not slow, but we know Cheltenham brings out the best in him.
"It's probably the race of the meeting, the race all enthusiasts are looking forward to."
Connell's retained rider Danny Mullins has not yet ridden a Festival winner, but is hopeful Our Conor can make his presence felt in the feature event on the opening day.
The jockey said: "He maybe beat lesser opposition than we're taking on now, but I'm happy the way he's come through his trials and we'll know a lot more now.
"It was a very tactical affair last time, no-one wanted to bottom their horses out before Cheltenham. He's been very good and showed a lot of speed at Leopardstown the last day, so we're hopeful.
"Having been there and won as well as he did last year is great, but he's going to have to get up that hill faster this time. There's four or five with serious chances, and this is going to sort them out."