Mullins salutes Hurricane steel
Hurricane Fly once more underlined his status as this country's prime Cheltenham hurdling crown contender when the odds-on favourite replicated his three previous triumphs on the bounce over Solwhit to make the Irish Champion Hurdle breakthrough for connections.
The 7,030 spectators at Leopardstown saw Willie Mullins and Paul Townend, as well as joint northern owners George Creighton and Mrs Rose Boyd, celebrate their first success in the BHP Insurance highlight, which turned out to be a virtual carbon copy of the pair's most recent Christmas Hurdle clash there after a more generous pace this time had been set by the winner's progressive stable companion Thousand Stars.
Sitting relaxed and jumping fluently behind Katie Walsh's mount until the tempo increased after two out, Hurricane Fly always looked to have the upper hand again over his arch-rival, on which Davy Russell tried in vain to exert maximum pressure heading for the final flight.
"I only had to give him a slap after the last; he's a true professional and a proper horse," was regular pilot Townend's post-race reaction after the gelding had clocked six seconds faster than when Solwhit captured the spoils in last year's renewal.
Indeed his champion trainer Willie Mullins was relieved as much as elated by the Grade One's outcome, revealing that his best hurdler had been suffering from a cut heel and had not been impressive in his final gallop earlier in the week.
"He got the cut here the last day and it may have been partly responsible for him working only average this week," Mullins said. "But this was a proper trial. He came off a decent gallop nicely and went away at the end so the plan is to give him a little break before building him up for Cheltenham."
The Mullins-Townend partnership could have another live arrow to aim at the Cheltenham Festival, this time in one of the novice hurdles, thanks to the smooth transition to jumping which Day of A Lifetime exhibited in what appeared a competitive opening maiden.
Realt Dubh booked his passage to the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy when recording his second successive Grade One victory over Leopardstown's two miles and a furlong trip in the Irish version after a tremendous duel from the final fence with Noble Prince.
Owned by Derek Sharkey, whose father Des was represented by Noble Prince, Realt Dubh responded gamely for Paul Carberry to confirm post-Christmas form with the runner-up, on which Barry Geraghty drew level early on the run-in.
From that point, the crowd was treated to a ding-dong battle as these former champion jockeys asked their mounts for maximum effort, and it was only in the dying strides that the gutsy Realt Dubh nailed the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase.
The complexion of a race run at a proper pace, with Mr Cracker doing the donkey work, took a dramatic change though when Flat Out, which appeared to be travelling sweetly, paid the penalty for guessing at the tricky second-last fence and dumped Emmet Mullins.
From the home turn it was obvious that Mr Cracker was vulnerable to both Realt Dubh and Noble Prince, and winning trainer Noel Meade had no hesitation in nominating the Irish Independent promotion in the Cotswolds as the next port of call.
"Realt Dubh had been working better beforehand than when he also beat Noble Prince here last month," said Meade. "He jumped great and deserves to have a crack at the Arkle now. Who knows what would have happened had Flat Out stood up."
That casualty seems to have survived his exit intact and remains in the mix for the Arkle Trophy, with Willie Mullins remarking: "Emmet said the horse was very long at that fence and he let him fiddle it. It was as good a novice chase as I've seen here for years and they will have learned plenty."
However, unless the ground at Cheltenham rides quite soft, John 'Shark' Hanlon's stable star Hidden Cyclone, which readily justified favouritism in the Synergy Security Solutions Novice Hurdle, won't be making the trip, with a shorter hop to Thurles maybe next on the agenda.
Third to First Lieutenant and Zaidpour when losing his unbeaten record over two miles here last month, Hidden Cyclone, which was sent to the front early on the final circuit by Andrew McNamara, progressively jumped and galloped his rivals -- best of whom were hat-trick seekers Ballyhaunis and Si C'etait Vrai -- into submission, despite an untidy leap at the last.
"This fellow prefers to be dropped in and pass horses towards the finish, so things didn't go according to plan out there. But the last thing I said to Andrew was that if there was nothing making it a decent gallop to go on with him," Hanlon explained.
Hanlon made it a memorable double an hour later when newcomer Mart Lane, another smart recruit for the stable by the under-utilised stallion Stowaway, had the measure of Fairyhouse runner-up Burn And Turn in the bumper in the colours of local resident Barry Connell, whose Glam Gerry landed a gamble in the preceding handicap hurdle for Colm Murphy.
- 2009 champion Sea The Stars is now a father. His first-born, who arrived safely at Castlebridge Farm in Co Meath, is a bay colt out of a mare whose name, Centreofattention, will set the tone for the rest of the new arrival's life.