NINETEEN and counting. There was a scare in midweek, there was a scare after the last hurdle yesterday, but there was a horse of a lifetime at the centre of it all.
A 19th Grade One win, a fourth BHP Insurance Champion Hurdle and a braver than brave attitude ensured that the legendary Hurricane Fly was promoted to 5/2 favourite for the Stan James Champion Hurdle with Boylesports.
God only knows what superlatives we will use if Hurricane Fly goes on to win in March, but I assure you they won't be new ones because, over the course of an exceptional career, this little horse with a huge heart has left us with very little left to say that hasn't been already said.
For most, Hurricane Fly has been recognised as one of the all time greats some time ago, a minority he is still convincing, but that minority is even smaller this morning after the gutsy display that provoked a rapturous reception mid-afternoon at Leopardstown Racecourse on Saturday.
In a unique setting, while Hurricane Fly was being introduced to the punters who had lined the parade ring, a near tearful Willie Mullins was unsurprisingly full of praise for the two-time Cheltenham winner in the aftermath.
"I just have huge respect for the horse to do what he did coming off the bit of work I saw during the week. If he had been an ordinary horse in an ordinary race, he wouldn't have run.
"It's the Champion Hurdle, we had to bring him here and I didn't know what he was going to do.
"We would have loved to have given him another week, but the Champion Hurdle is today not next week, you don't have that option with these horses.
"We didn't have any other reason not to run him only for that piece of work and, once he got over that, he was over it. We'll see how he comes out of that race, that was a tough race on him."
Mullins declined to reveal what day Hurricane Fly disappointed in what is probably now the horse's most infamous bit of work but said; "It was the worst piece of work I have ever seen him do.
"He just worked so bad, but the race was on today and we couldn't wait until next week. When you have an ordinary horse and an ordinary race, those races come up every other week and you can wait, but we couldn't wait and we had to come and take our chance with our fingers crossed."
While there were anxious moments midweek, all signs since showed the horse was well.
"His bloods were good, he scoped fine and I think he even had a bite of Paul this morning, so that's always a good sign!"
The race itself panned out as most expected, with Captain Cee Bee making the running and, unlike the Ryanair Hurdle, Ruby Walsh took closer order sitting in second with Our Conor in third and Jezki held up in last as the field raced in single file until the turn for home.
A motionless Danny Mullins loomed upsides a motionless Ruby Walsh as the JP McManus pair of Jezki and Captain Cee Bee looked under more pressure and, when Our Conor pinged the last and Hurricane Fly was far less fluent, it had appeared that the search for a 19th Grade One was on hold.
"I thought that Our Conor had got the better of us at that stage (last hurdle)," Mullins admitted. "But it just shows you what the horse keeps in the locker, that he fought and to me he looked beaten."
The champion trainer went as far as to say that he momentarily felt "the dream is over" after the now well documented piece of work.
"I was so disappointed that I thought coming down off the gallops that 'maybe the dream is over, maybe it has just come to the stage where he's had enough,' but then we found the problem when Gail brought him out for a walk in the evening and he was slightly lame and our blacksmith Paul Fahey, who trained the winner of the big race yesterday, found a bruise and dug it out.
"That bad bit of work stuck in my mind all week and certainly when Our Conor loomed up beside him I thought 'here's that bad bit of work going to come out in him now and that's it', but the guts he showed and the way in which he won was extraordinary I think."
Walsh, who was seen at his majestic best when racking up a four-timer reflected: "When I got a smack into and he started to run I was happy enough and, when I got my head back in front, I was happy that I wasn't going to be beaten.
"If you think back to last year's Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham he was off the bridle so far out but he stayed so well. He has stamina, he has pace, he'll battle when you want him to battle – he does everything. He's the perfect racehorse."
Looking ahead Mullins said: "The Champion Hurdle is in just over six weeks time and I am happy with where I am with the horse that he can win that with a bad preparation."
But the man who has orchestrated, minded and cajoled Hurricane Fly to greatness summed yesterday up: "He is the best horse I have ever trained and what he has done today was the best yet," Mullins said.