The Festival Hurdle, the feature event on the final day of the Christmas Festival at Leopardstown, is a Grade One event worth nearly €55,000 to the winner, but it fell somewhere between an exercise gallop and a dress rehearsal as Hurricane Fly barely came off the bridle on the way to a seven-length success.
There has not been a hurdler in Ireland capable of giving Hurricane Fly a serious race for several seasons now, and just four lined up against him, including one complete no-hoper. Thousand Stars, which had not beaten Hurricane Fly – one of his stablemates at the Willie Mullins yard – in seven previous attempts, set a fair pace for the 1/5 favourite to chase, and when Ruby Walsh sent Hurricane Fly ahead on the home turn he quickly had the race won.
This was Hurricane Fly's 15th success over hurdles, and all but two of those have come at Grade One level. It did little more than confirm his current well-being, but given that he did not run at all last season until the Irish Champion Hurdle in late January, as Mullins did not feel that he was right, that was an end in itself.
Hurricane Fly is likely to return here for the Irish Champion next month, when he will be an odds-on chance once again and will probably win as he pleases. The race that really matters is the one after that, the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, and though he will be nine by the time that arrives, he has been lightly raced during his career and appears to have plenty left to give.
"He couldn't do any more," Mullins said. "He sat in behind the pace and quickened when he wanted to quicken, so we think he's in good form.
"He was a lot easier to lead around the parade ring beforehand, and certainly in the race. Ruby said he was very settled, which will improve his performance because he was too keen before. The Champion Hurdle looks very open, and if we can get there in the same form, it's all to play for."
Hurricane Fly shortened marginally in the Champion Hurdle betting, and is now top-priced at 9/2, behind Darlan, the Christmas Hurdle winner, at 3/1.
Flemenstar, the beaten favourite in Friday's Lexus Chase here, remains a possible runner in the Gold Cup in March, despite a suggestion yesterday that he will be trained for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, over two miles, instead. Flemenstar will run in the Hennessy Gold Cup over three miles at Leopardstown in early February before a final decision on his Festival target is made, with the Ryanair Chase, over two miles and five furlongs, also under consideration.