Write off exceptional Hurricane Fly at your peril
If it's true that the efforts expended at Cheltenham in March have taken a toll on some horses at Punchestown this week, Hurricane Fly might never be more vulnerable.
Willie Mullins' sensational nine-year-old bids for a fourth successive triumph in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle today, having performed heroics to reclaim the two-mile crown from Rock On Ruby.
At one point leaving the back straight, it didn't seem beyond the realms of possibility that Ruby Walsh might have to pull him up. But, in the end, horse and rider displayed the class and courage that are the hallmark of true champions to storm home for a remarkable 15th Grade One success. It was a mind-boggling feat and it's worth acknowledging the role that the runner-up played.
Some reckoned that Noel Fehily must have set a ferocious pace on Rock On Ruby to get Hurricane Fly in such a fix early on, but that is a misconception. He judged it beautifully, it required an act of Herculean proportions from an exceptional animal to get by him, something nothing else managed to do.
As such, both had hard races, which may play into the lap of something like Mick Winters' Galway Hurdle victor Rebel Fitz, a horse that remains hugely promising.
There were similar questions hanging over Hurricane Fly here 12 months ago, yet it was then that we first witnessed his willingness to win ugly.
Undoubtedly the best and most accomplished hurdler since Istabraq, you write him off at your peril, a comment that also applies to Jane Mangan.
When Oscar Delta unceremoniously dumped the outstanding teenager halfway up the famous Prestbury Park hill with the Foxhunters' at his mercy, her world caved in around her.
However, they are made of stern stuff in Conna and Mangan responded with the determination that has become her trademark, a Fairyhouse Champion Bumper success followed by two more inspired turns this week.
Oscar Delta and Salsify square off again in tonight's Champion Hunters' Chase.
There will only be one outcome if character comes into play, and it would be the most popular result of the week –bar none.
3.40 KFM Bishopscourt Cup Hunters' Chase 2m 4f
A bad race that adds little to the Festival. Enniskillen popped over the banks on Tuesday and drops in class, while Old Supporter ran well in a 'point' recently.
Verdict: Enniskillen might be the one in a novelty contest that lacks quality.
4.20 Aon Novice H'cap Chase 2m 5f
No shortage of contenders, with Ruby Walsh taking over on Immediate Response, a winner of two of its last three starts that will handle the ground.
Dessie Hughes' Caheronaun has improved to win twice lately, though Bryan Cooper prefers White Star Line following his second successive placed effort at Cheltenham.
Solstice Knight is up seven pounds for winning at Fairyhouse, while Sweeney Tunes was a fine fourth in the Irish Grand National. He has plenty of weight but is progressive.
Verdict: Immediate Response is taken to continue his connections' fine form.
4.55 Breakfast with Hector on 2FM Handicap Chase 3m 6f
Panther Claw represents the Irish National form in this. Fifth then, he is in off the same mark here and will relish what is going to be a real war of attrition.
In Great Form is in off a low weight. He has been out of sorts, but could figure if he returns to form, with Gowran winner Novarov an improver that loves a test.
Verdict: Panther Claw is made for this sort of slog.
5.30 Grade One Rabobank Champion Hurdle 2m
Hurricane Fly is unquestionably the best horse in the race, and is arguably happiest in deep ground. He showed remarkable resolve to come from an uncharacteristically laboured predicament at Cheltenham to wrench the Champion Hurdle mantle back off Rock On Ruby, so the only concern is whether those exertions will have left a mark.
Rock On Ruby also excelled in defeat. In first-time blinkers, he set a strong gallop and pushed the winner to the pin of his collar. The big negative against him here is that the testing ground won't obviously play to his strengths.
So Young, one of three others that Willie Mullins saddles, will relish the conditions, though Thousand Stars might be the pick of the Closutton alternatives.
Rebel Fitz is a fascinating contender. The Galway Hurdle hero remains open to further progression, but, as we saw on his last two defeats at Tipperary and Cork, he is less effective in testing ground. By now, the wetter it gets, the better he may cope.
Verdict: Fears of a Cheltenham hangover aside, Hurricane Fly can't be opposed.
6.05 Grade One Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle 2m 4f
Pont Alexandre couldn't replicate his previous authority when third to The New One at Cheltenham, but the drying ground was against him and the winner is a good horse.
He will be much happier back in the mud, as will stablemate Un Atout, which only cried enough at the last flight in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Fourth in the end, this step up to two and half miles could be just what he needs.
English raider Ubak was seventh behind The New One at Cheltenham, but improved to win a decent race at Aintree.
More will be required here, and it may be that Mullaghanoe River proves to be the biggest threat to Willie Mullins' duo, having made short work of subsequent two-time winner Gold Bullet at Navan in February.
Verdict: Un Atout has the scope to step up over this longer distance.
6.40 Racing Coverage
Novice Hurdle 2m
Un De Sceaux made a convincing debut here in February, beating subsequent winners Sammy Black and Never Enough Time at will. He remains an unknown quantity.
Clonbanan Lad, Waaheb and Moscow Mannon are all classy horses that have been disappointing to varying degrees of late, while Juan De Gracia and Wedding Present are Fairyhouse maiden hurdle winners that won't mind the ground.
Verdict: Un De Sceaux is the most precocious prospect.
7.10 ITBA Fillies' Scheme
Premier Bumper 2m
A sister to Blackstairmountain, Bluemountainbeach warrants respect on its debut, though Patrick Mullins has opted for Wexford runner-up Robina Mai.
Catmini won at the same track in December, but none have been as impressive as County Champions. Robert Tyner's mare sluiced up at Cork last month.
Verdict: On past performances, County Champions is the one.
7.45 Racing Post Champion
Hunters Chase 3m 1f
With Chapoturgeon, Mossey Joe and Tammys Hill absent, this has cut up.
Salsify just held out in 2011, and would have been second to Oscar Delta, but for Jane Mangan's misfortune at Cheltenham.
As a dual Foxhunters' victor he is the one to beat, though Oscar Delta will be better suited by the ground, as he was at Cheltenham.
Verdict: Oscar Delta to napped set the record straight under his excellent rider.