Improving Oscar can make it tough for reigning champ
Just as the road begins to level out with the Cheltenham festival now firmly in sight, Hurricane Fly makes his highly anticipated seasonal debut in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown today.
That this is the son of Montjeu's first appearance, just over six weeks from the Festival, tells you a bit of the frustration that has dogged his short career to date. Indeed after winning the Champion Hurdle last season, trainer Willie Mullins was relieved more than anything else to have finally got his stable star to Prestbury Park, given he had missed the two previous festivals due to injury. Hopefully the signs will be pleasing today and it will most likely be straight to Cheltenham after this, all going well.
Punters wanting to take him on today might point to race fitness, yet Hurricane Fly has overcome fitness issues before and he wouldn't be running here unless he was in good order. Today he faces the front three from the Istabraq Festival Hurdle, where Dermot Weld's filly Unaccompanied came out on top, announcing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the two-mile hurdle division.
However, she may have had the run of things here last time. Paul Townend trapped Ruby Walsh and Thousand Stars in at a crucial time, which just allowed Unaccompanied to steal a couple of lengths on the grey horse. Given that they went at a slow pace, it was bound to suit the filly with Flat speed, yet she was just about holding on at the end.
Thousand Stars may well have been unlucky and he continues to improve at the very top rank. However, a slow pace may well be the case again today and that will be against the son of Grey Risk, which was able to win a French Champion Hurdle over three miles and a quarter.
Oscar Wells may be the one to give Hurricane Fly the most to do. A top novice last year, he had the Neptune Hurdle at his mercy when diving at the last hurdle, and he has steadily improved with each run at senior rank this season. He was probably in front earlier than he wanted against the above-mentioned in their previous race. And at a price of around 10/1, he could be a value play here.
The other Grade One race on the card, the Arkle Novice Chase, is similar to the Champion Hurdle in that a number of horses that ran at the Christmas Festival make their way back to Leopardstown to take each other on again.
Blackstairmountain came out on top that time and there seems to be no obvious reason why Willie Mullins's horse can't repeat the trick today.
Notus De La Tour, which was outstayed by the son of Imperial Ballet last time, makes the journey over again for David Pipe. While Foildubh, Lucky William and Baily Green are also due to reoppose. However, they all have something to find with Blackstairmountain now.
Flemenstar is an interesting new threat to the favourite. He won his previous two races in good style and has earned a crack at this, but he does look short in the betting based solely on what he's done so far.
It could indeed be a red-letter day for Willie Mullins as he also holds the top two in the betting for the Grade Two novice hurdle. Boston Bob did it well last time in the Grade One Navan Hurdle, while stablemate Make Your Mark is unbeaten from two runs.
However, it may be worth chancing Noel Meade's Texas Jack, which disappointed previously but is a horse that is held in high regard at home.
Jigalo is an 11-year-old now but looked better than ever here last time where he may have been unlucky and caught unawares by a late run from Arklow Ger.
That was a strongly-run race and he can make amends today.
Sunday Indo Sport