Fly skips Morgiana as Mullins opts for time
A sense of deja vu prevailed yesterday as Willie Mullins announced that his brilliant Champion Hurdle winner Hurricane Fly would not return to action as planned in Sunday's Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.
A year ago, the same Grade One was Hurricane Fly's intended reappearance target until a bout of coughing forced Mullins to reroute him to the Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse, a race that ended up being run more than a fortnight later than scheduled on December 15 because of the disruption caused by sub-zero temperatures.
This time, with Mullins stating that he is not "bursting to get runs into him", it could be after Christmas before the public get to see his brilliant hurdling champion. "I took Hurricane Fly out this morning because I'm just not happy with him," Mullins explained.
"A good few of mine have been backward recently and I was conscious of ante-post betting, so I decided not to wait until Friday to withdraw him. He'll not run until I'm happy with him again and, at the moment, I'm aiming to bring him back at Christmas rather than in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse on December 4."
The Morgiana is beginning to look like a contest that Hurricane Fly is destined not to win, having suffered his sole defeat in 11 outings in England and Ireland when third behind Solwhit in the race two years ago. Following that, he subsequently spent five months sidelined with an injury.
With seemingly nothing more untoward amiss now than what Mullins implied, Hurricane Fly retained his position at the head of the betting to retain his Cheltenham crown yesterday, though Sunday's race sponsors Ladbrokes eased him a fraction from 7/4 to 2/1.
Oscars Well, Jessica Harrington's dual Grade One-winning novice from last season, was nibbled at from 20/1 into 16/1 with the same firm. Third on his seasonal bow at Down Royal two weeks ago, the six-year-old was slashed from 7/1 to 5/2 for Sunday's feature event, with Charles Byrnes' progressive Pittoni the new market leader at a best-priced 6/4.
News of Hurricane Fly's setback came less than 24 hours after the five-day declarations were made for the Morgiana, at which point last weekend's winning mares Unaccompanied and Voler La Vedette were withdrawn to leave six entries.
As a result, the two-miler now has a relatively threadbare look to it, though Mullins could still have a big hand in the outcome, with his French Champion Hurdle hero Thousand Stars still engaged, along with So Young, which finished just in front of Oscars Well when third behind First Lieutenant at Cheltenham in March.
Earlier yesterday, Stan Cosgrave, racing manager to Unaccompanied's owners, Moyglare Stud, had revealed that the Dermot Weld-trained mare, which hosed up at Naas on Saturday after finishing second on the Flat six days earlier, would next turn out in the Hatton's Grace.
Given the way that Unaccompanied thrives on her racing, connections may be ruing the decision not to leave her in at Punchestown.
"She did it very well and has come out of the race very well," Cosgrave reported of the four-year-old's latest triumph. "The trainer is talking about maybe going for the Hatton's Grace. You have to keep her going to keep fit as she's a great doer -- that's why she was able to have two quick runs."
Philip Fenton, meanwhile, has expressed himself happy with Last Instalment ahead of Sunday's Florida Pearl Novice Chase. His exciting six-year-old made a successful chasing debut at Galway last month and could meet fellow Gigginstown Stud representative First Lieutenant in the Grade Two.
"He's going to run on Sunday and appears to be in good form," said Fenton, who added that Dunguib would be sent chasing when he returns from injury next season.
Ruby Walsh has also spoken in positive terms of Kauto Star's prospects in Saturday's Betfair Chase at Haydock. Third behind Long Run in that spellbinding Gold Cup back in March, Paul Nicholls' 11-year-old failed to raise a gallop at Punchestown in May and is 8/1 to turn the tables on Nicky Henderson's odds-on favourite on Saturday.
"You'd have to say he's a big price as Long Run comes here as defending champion. This will be a stepping stone to the King George and Gold Cup," Walsh declared. "In contrast, every day now could be D-day for Kauto Star -- I know Paul's worked him pretty hard so he definitely won't be lacking for fitness."