IT WAS billed as a definitive test of Hurricane Fly's status as top dog and the champion duly reasserted his impeccable superiority by claiming a stirring edition of the Ryanair Hurdle in emphatic style for Ruby Walsh.
In claiming a record 17th Grade One success in workmanlike fashion on his Punchestown reappearance, a criticism levelled at Willie Mullins' sensational dual Champion Hurdler was that many of his domestic triumphs had been accrued against vastly inferior opposition.
On the eve of his 10th birthday at Leopardstown yesterday, though, he faced the winners of nine other Grade Ones, including the prodigious pair Our Conor and Jezki.
Between them, the five runners boasted an aggregate 28 top-level successes; none of the last three Champion Hurdles at Cheltenham featured more than 26.
In a tactical renewal of the €100,000 two-miler, Hurricane Fly confounded his critics by coming from last to first en route to a comprehensive two-and-a-half-length triumph over Jezki.
AP McCoy got boxed in behind his own back-pedalling pacemaker Captain Cee Bee on Jezki as Danny Mullins held his ground stubbornly aboard Our Conor approaching the final flight of hurdles. That cost him momentum, but little else.
Walsh's mount, which returned an odds-against SP in Ireland for the first time in over three years at 11/10, avoided all the trouble on the outside.
The Fly purred once more as his old trademark burst of acceleration returned to put the race to bed in sumptuous fashion. "It was a hugely tactical race," Mullins beamed after the star of his relentless Carlow juggernaut came back to a raucous welcome.
"Going around last wasn't in the game plan, but Ruby was very cool on him. He flew the last and Ruby said he was idling in front. I knew he was fat going to Punchestown and that will bring him on again. The challenge was to get him fit enough to beat Our Conor and Jezki without leaving everything here today.
"I didn't want to fire everything at him with big days like the Irish and English Champion Hurdles to come and then Punchestown as well.
"I'm happy with what he has done here, though, beating the best of the Irish horses. He's improving all the time."
That sounds ominous for the vanquished, but the young pretenders that got closest to him won't have departed completely deflated.
Jezki ran into traffic at a crucial stage of the contest, and Our Conor will doubtless improve for his first hurdling start in nine months ahead of another stab at the brilliant winner in the Irish Champion Hurdle on January 26.
Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Hurricane Fly, just third favourite behind My Tent Or Yours and The New One to land a third Champion in March after being trimmed to 4/1, is a tireless 18-time Grade One-winning machine. Period.
"He's a great little horse," Walsh gushed afterwards. "It was great the reception he got from the crowd, they appreciated him today. I'd say he's the best of all time."
On the fourth day of Christmas, the healthy 10,182 Foxrock crowd were treated to yet another gripping dust-up between Walsh and McCoy in the other Grade One.
Walsh looked sure to double up on Morning Assembly in the Topaz Novice Chase, but McCoy gained a measure of revenge for Jezki's defeat by eventually coaxing JP McManus' improving Galway Plate hero Carlingford Lough (5/1) to a length-and-a-half success.
Asked if the game seven-year-old would be aimed at the RSA Chase in March, for which he was given first-time quotes of 14/1, his wily Waterford handler John Kiely quipped: "We'll do what we're told!"
Sean Doyle, who will have his licence withdrawn by the Turf Club for 18 months in February after two horses that he was registered to train were found to be trained by someone else, secured the biggest win of his career when Bryan Cooper stole the Grade Three Mares' Hurdle with a front-running masterclass aboard 14/1 shot Theatre Bird.
Earlier, Charles Byrnes' uber-progressive handicapper Sea Light readily justified his odds-on status to score for a second time in three days at the festival for Davy Russell, while Philip Fenton's resurgence continued when his smart recent Fairyhouse bumper scorer Value At Risk (7/4) followed up in the winners' race under Richie Kiely.