After failing to make his competitive return before the turn of the year last season, Hurricane Fly will bid to reaffirm his status as one of the best two-mile hurdlers in recent times with a rare early outing at Punchestown on Sunday.
Slow to come to hand this time last year, Willie Mullins' brilliant 2011 Champion Hurdle hero looked his usual imperious self when finally stepping out in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown at the end of January. However, on seeking to secure back-to-back triumphs when sent off an odds-on favourite at Cheltenham in March, he was far less potent when filling the third spot behind Rock On Ruby.
The former classy Flat racer returned to winning ways at Punchestown in April but, again, was workmanlike rather than spectacular under Ruby Walsh. While Sunday's Dobbins & Madigans Morgiana Hurdle won't establish whether or not Hurricane Fly can still recapture the old sparkle, the champion trainer is encouraged by the fact his charge has had a straightforward preparation.
"We're very happy with him so far," Mullins said. "He came back off grass a much stronger horse and seems to be more forward than he was at this stage last year."
Sunday represents an opportunity for the eight-year-old to make amends for his 2009 defeat in the race – the only time that he'd been beaten in 12 Irish or British starts in almost four years prior to his eclipse last March. Coming on November 15, 2009, that third placing behind Solwhit was his earliest autumn reappearance – a win in the 2008 Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle on November 30 being his only other run prior to the month of December.
Bookmakers make Hurricane Fly a 4/7 shot to claim his 12th victory at the highest level at Punchestown, where Noel Meade's Go Native, a top-priced 7/2, could be among his chief rivals. A facile winner on the Flat at Galway, the 2009 Supreme Novices' Hurdle victor has not run over flights since failing to justify favouritism in the 2010 Champion Hurdle. "He seemed to be right back to his best," Meade said of his Ballybrit stroll, "so we are looking forward to Sunday. Obviously if Hurricane Fly turns up he will be the horse to beat."
Captain Cee Bee, Zaidpour, Unaccompanied, Blackstairmountain and Staying Article complete the Morgiana entries, with the last-named duo also pencilled in at Cork the same day. Mullins' dual Champion Bumper winner Champagne Fever has various options over hurdles and fences at both venues over the weekend.
Sunday's undercard at Punchestown, where the ground is currently heavy, is headed by a pair of cracking Grade Two novice chases. In the two-mile version, Mouse Morris' Baily Green could bid for a remarkable eighth win on the spin, with Oscars Well, Twinlight, Jenari, Dylan Ross and Buckers Bridge among six potential rivals.
Henry de Bromhead has also put Buckers Bridge in the two-mile-six-furlong contest, where he could face Mullins' emphatic Listowel scorer Back In Focus.
Tom Cooper, meanwhile, has confirmed that Forpadydeplasterer will bid to exploit a potentially lenient mark of 150 in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday, rather than take in the Clonmel Oil Chase tomorrow.
Cooper added that Lucky William will not reappear until the spring after suffering a setback, while Gordon Elliott has a similar schedule in mind for Jessies Dream. Elliott also reported that his high-class bumper horse Don Cossack could make its hurdling debut at Navan on Sunday week.