Ruby's champion hurdle mission
Hurricane Fly will have his first taste of Cheltenham in the Stan James Champion Hurdle today. Ill-timed injuries deprived the seven-time Grade One winner of a chance to showcase his talent on the biggest stage of all in 2009 and 2010.
Now he is finally getting his chance, and he provides the eight-time champion jockey Ruby Walsh with his best ever chance of winning the race.
Already successful in three of the big four -- the Gold Cup, Champion Chase, and Grand National -- Walsh would join Barry Geraghty and Tony McCoy as the only jockeys currently riding to have achieved that feat if Hurricane Fly were to triumph.
The challenge facing Hurricane Fly is immense. Cheltenham, with its rolling undulations, the white heat of championship battle and the deafening roar of a 50,000-strong crowd, will be like nothing he has encountered before.
Significantly, no horse since Alderbrook in 1995 has won the Champion Hurdle without previous experience of the Gloucestershire cauldron. The responsibility for ensuring a smooth passage, then, falls on the unflappable Walsh, who takes over from young Paul Townend after returning from a four-month lay-off with a broken leg.
When the tape goes up and the cavalry charge to the first hurdle begins, pace and hurdling technique are the two most critical factors. Neither should be an issue for Walsh on Hurricane Fly, although the Montjeu gelding has never competed in anything like the helter-skelter that he will encounter this afternoon, so a clean jump over the first will calm everyone's nerves.
Walsh's primary concern will be to ensure that his partner gets a decent view of the hurdle. If he elects to drop in, then that should be possible down the inside; if they decide to sit handy, then it would be as well to line up in the middle of the track.
Charlie Swan got it spot on in Istabraq's first Champion Hurdle in 1998 by going wide and handy, though Richard Johnson probably dropped Rooster Booster in too far when defending his title in 2004.
Once the first obstacle is negotiated, a discernible shape quickly emerges as to how the early part of the race is going to unfold. Overturn will set a strong gallop, and many of the main contenders race close to the pace.
Hurricane Fly has been ridden handily at Leopardstown recently, but that may have been to negate the possibility of a falsely run race. At Cheltenham there will be no such concern so, given that he shouldn't want for tactical pace to get him into the race, settling in may be the wisest course of action.
There will be no hiding place, though, and Hurricane Fly will need to find his stride quickly.
Plenty of fancied horses have been stretched at this early point, none more so than Rhinestone Cowboy, which blundered badly here before eventually finding his rhythm too late when third in 2003.
The bend away from the stands and the first hurdle down the back present a challenge all of its own. In the event that Walsh elects to sit handy and go wide, it will be crucial to get across the track after the second flight so that he doesn't waste valuable ground on the first turn.
If he goes down the inner, then Hurricane Fly, by no means a big horse, will need assistance from the saddle if he is to not to be bullied out of position.
The first in the back straight is a tricky obstacle, as the field is freewheeling down the hill. With the race beginning to hot up, a mistake can be ruinous.
Blue Bajan wasn't going to win anyway, but his blunder here in 2009 cost him any chance of a place.
Provided everything has gone to plan, this will be the time to start creeping. Walsh won't want to have to make up too much ground on the ascent that brings you to the highest point of the track around the bend out of the back straight, so this is where he will gain lengths.
With the race entering its second mile, it is also where cracks will start to show in some of the fancied horses, with mistakes at this point usually a sign that they are struggling, as opposed to the mistakes causing them to struggle. Of all the recent Champion Hurdlers, only Brave Inca required aggressive riding this early. Walsh will need Hurricane Fly to still be travelling and jumping.
Asian Maze fell here in 2006, while Tony McCoy's effort on Binocular 12 months ago is of note, as he was already sitting fifth at this point, having dropped in early.
The climb to the top of the hill begins shortly after the fourth hurdle. It will be vital for Hurricane Fly to be able to hold his position comfortably at this point, as there will be no way back if he is being scrubbed along here.
With a hurdle to jump halfway up the incline, this is what you might call the championship quarter of the race -- anything that is still in contention now ought to have a serious chance.
Walsh will look to make further inroads to get to the heels of the leaders, as he won't want them to get away from him once they turn down the hill and step on the gas.
Apart from Hardy Eustace, which made all in 2004 and 2005, Brave Inca (2006) and Katchit (2008) both got involved at the head of affairs here before going on to win.
Once the leaders swing down the hill, Walsh ought to be in the box seat behind them. It may be a vital opportunity for him to fill his horse's lungs. This will also be the first time that Hurricane Fly will have ever been asked to operate downhill at breakneck speed, so it may be now that his jumping comes under the most pressure. In the latter stages of his races at home, he has tended to jump right. To do so here may not be fatal, but it would hardly be ideal.
Both Copeland (2003) and Iktitaf (2007) crashed out here when still in contention.
Crunch time. With the exception of Sublimity, every winner of the Champion Hurdle over the last 10 years has 'engaged' at or before the second-last. Genuine championship horses stay two miles well, so it would be naive to expect whatever is in front to come back.
Hurricane Fly shouldn't have any problem if he gets into a scrap from here as he is tigerish and his stamina is well established, but he may also have the acceleration required for Walsh to keep his powder dry for a bit longer. If he does, it will make for a great watch.
Tony McCoy's decision to take a pull on Binocular in 2009 arguably cost him the race, but Philip Carberry and Charlie Swan executed flawless waiting tactics on Sublimity (2007) and Istabraq (2000).
Final hurdle finish
Even if Walsh elects to delay his challenge until after the second-last, once they round the final bend and face the last flight there will be little point in holding on any longer.
Hurricane Fly stays, so it would make no sense not to allow for a mistake at the last. The important thing is to maintain the horse's momentum, and it will be easier for Walsh to do that if he has already asked Hurricane Fly to quicken.
From the last, it will be all about battling it out up the hill. In view of the depth of opposition this year, a scrap is practically guaranteed and there is no reason to believe Hurricane Fly would shirk the challenge. More than that, he might actually relish it.
Every previous Champion Hurdle winner, no matter how effortless it looked, never got to the top of the hill in front without digging deep. Harchibald discovered as much when he ran into Hardy Eustace in 2005.