WILLIE Mullins is confident Hurricane Fly is in better shape than at any stage last season as he aims to complete a hat-trick in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday.
The 13-time Grade One winner was a scintillating winner of this prestigious event 12 months ago on what was his belated seasonal reappearance, but suffered an odds-on reverse when defending his crown in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
He signed off for the campaign with a solid, if unspectacular, victory at the Punchestown Festival, but has looked more like his old self in winning the Morgiana and the Festival Hurdle so far this term.
The nine-year-old is a hot favourite to become the first horse since the great Istabraq to win the Irish Champion Hurdle more than twice.
He won the race four times in succession between 1998 and 2001.
"I don't think there was anything troubling him last season. He just didn't come back as strong. He probably didn't do as well during the summer and we never got to put the condition and strength into him that we needed," said Mullins.
"This year he's come back much stronger and he has taken his training well and doing everything right, so fingers crossed we can keep him right for Sunday.
"He's a much more settled horse all round this year and he'll have a very good chance."
Victory this weekend is likely to strengthen Hurricane Fly's position at the head of ante-post betting for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, but Mullins is refusing to look that far ahead.
"I'm just concentrating on Sunday. What happens after that across the water, I'm not thinking about that. It's all about Sunday for me," said the champion trainer.
"The Irish Champion Hurdle is an extremely valuable and important race in its own right.
"We've been fortunate enough with Hurricane Fly to win this race on two occasions and we're looking forward to the race."
Mullins has a second runner in the shape of three-time Grade One winner Thousand Stars, but he has never finished ahead of Hurricane Fly in eight previous meetings.
The hot favourite's biggest threat would appear to be Nicky Henderson's British challenger Binocular, winner of the 2010 Champion Hurdle and one place behind Hurricane Fly when fourth at Cheltenham last year.
The nine-year-old has not been seen in competitive action since then and Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus, is keeping his fingers crossed for a positive result.
"He had a good break and was a little bit late going back to Nicky's. That's why he hasn't appeared," said Berry.
"He's in good form and it's a lovely race to run him in with a small field and we hope he runs a big race.
"Let's get Leopardstown out of the way and see how we get on. Hopefully he'll come on for the race and take it from there."
Eddie Harty's veteran Captain Cee Bee has picked up minor money behind Hurricane Fly the last twice and the trainer would be happy with a similar result.
Harty said: "He's in great form. He's a 12-year-old now and all you can hope for is a good run.
"He's enjoying himself over hurdles these days and I think his recent runs show he is entitled to take his chance in a race like this.
"If he runs as well as he did at Christmas, I'll be happy."
The five-runner field is completed by Oliver Brady's outsider One Cool Shabra.