Hurricane shows Champion form
There's no substitute for the adrenalin rush a stirring duel for supremacy between top-class jumpers evokes and we were treated to a memorable renewal of the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse yesterday as Hurricane Fly again wiped Solwhit's eye.
Resuming after a break of 236 days, the Willie Mullins-trained Montjeu gelding repeated his late surge to victory over Solwhit that had likewise seen Paul Townend's mount burgle the Rabobank Champion Hurdle at Punchestown off a five-month break.
Beforehand, the runner-up had been all the rage in the betting ring as trainer Charles Byrnes and regular partner Davy Russell reckoned a perceived fitness edge, after Solwhit's successful seasonal return at the Kildare venue, could be the deciding factor.
However, the drama that unfolded as the pair began to forge clear of the pack in the straight saw the favourite get first run on his arch-rival and open up what seemed, for a few strides between the last two flights, to be a decisive advantage.
No sooner had Solwhit's supporters begun to cheer, though, than Townend asked Hurricane Fly to close and the response, both before and after the final flight, was generous as the pair settled down for a ding-dong struggle which the Mullins runner won hands down.
"It was a terrific ride by Paul as he got a breather into Hurricane Fly three out and then the horse was very professional at the last two flights," Mullins said. "It looks as though he has improved from last year and we will consider Leopardstown after Christmas.
"Then there's the Irish Champion Hurdle back there for him, although I won't be making any hard and fast decisions until I see how he comes out of this race. Hopefully then we will be able to get him to Cheltenham."
Hurricane Fly, predictably, shortened dramatically to make a winning debut in the Cotswolds, emerging as Boylesports' co-favourite at 4/1 with last year's Champion Hurdle hero Binocular and Menorah, which collected the Supreme Novices Hurdle there last March.
Charles Byrnes, not surprisingly, is contemplating avoiding the Mullins star wherever possible this term and, having voiced reservations already about a return trip to Cheltenham in March, may opt instead to wait for another crack at the Aintree Hurdle in Liverpool.
The other classy French imports, Zaidpour and Mikael D'Haguenet, were expected to follow up for Mullins and Townend as favourites for the other Bar One Racing promotions, the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle and the Drinmore Novice Chase, and both duly obliged.
A runaway maiden hurdle victor at Punchestown on his belated Irish debut, Zaidpour -- on which Townend was content to track the pack most of the way -- fairly sprinted clear when asked to assert before the final flight and becomes a prime fancy for the Supreme Novices Hurdle.
As low as 3/1 from 12/1 with Ladbrokes for the Cheltenham Festival opener, this half-brother to Zaynar didn't have a hard race and could be back in action at Leopardstown after Christmas in the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle.
A similar outcome to the Drinmore Novice Chase looked on the cards for most of the journey as Mikael D'Haguenet bowled along for Townend not far off the pace and pulled clear with main market rival Jessies Dream heading to two out.
Seemingly poised to take the lead after the final obstacle, Mikael D'Haguenet slipped on landing, capsized and handed the spoils to local trainer Gordon Elliott's late-October winner at Galway, which could go to Kempton next for the Feltham Novices Chase.
Townend reported that the favourite had given him every satisfaction until their exit after the last and Mullins, relieved to see his multiple winner return unscathed, said: "Hopefully it won't have knocked the horse's confidence and he'll learn from that."
The Mullins-Townend alliance was soon back among the winners, though, as hotpot Golden Silver came late on the scene to comfortably repeat last year's success in the Hilly Way Chase, which was transferred from Cork last weekend, as a prelude to Leopardstown's Dial-A-Bet Chase.
Their front-running favourite Cooldine and equally well-backed stablemate J'y Vole between them couldn't deny Edward O'Grady's Tranquil Sea the John Durkan Memorial Chase prize after another well-contested event. Andrew McNamara secured the spoils when sending the eight-year-old away from Cooldine in the straight to encourage the Tipperary handler's prospects of lifting the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham.
"I'm delighted and he might go straight for the Ryanair now," said O'Grady. "He hasn't many options between now and then and Christmas is very close now anyway, where he would have to run over either two or three miles.
"This was always his pre-Christmas target and I'm delighted that he has achieved it. I'm pleased too that he has reversed Ryanair form with J'y Vole. Last season he ran too close to Cheltenham and we'll try to make a better job of it this time."
The rather fortuitous win of Jessies Dream saw Elliott complete a double as he had earlier combined with Davy Russell to land the opening juvenile hurdle with odds-on favourite Toner D'Oudairies. Russell bided his time on the youngster as first Ainm Spartacus and then Fearless Falcon made the running before going on two out to win by two and a half lengths from the promising Kalann.
Noel Meade's Asigh Pearl (16/1) could go for Leopardstown's MCR Hurdle after taking the handicap hurdle under Paul Carberry, while that jockey's sister Nina rode a perfectly patient race to lift the Caffrey's Bar & Restaurant Of Batterstown Handicap Chase on Peak Raider (11/2), trained by their father, Tommy.