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Riding greats in awe of Mullins' stable star

HURRICANE Fly is hot favourite to retain his crown in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, but just how good is the Willie Mullins-trained eight-year-old, and has he got what it takes to hang on to his title?

Retired former top jump jockeys Charlie Swan, Steve Smith Eccles and Graham Bradley arguably know better than anyone, as they tasted success in the Cheltenham showpiece.

All three were impressed by his comeback victory in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Swan will be forever associated with the hurdling legend that is Istabraq, on whom he shared the glory three years in a row from 1998 to 2000.

The JP McManus-owned gelding was only denied the chance of an almost certain fourth victory in 2001, when the entire meeting was lost to the foot and mouth outbreak.

"He's very good and he looks a bit like Istabraq," said Swan, (pictured) who is now a successful trainer in Co Tipperary.

"He has lots of class and jumps really well. He has loads of gears and he stays well too."

Steve Smith Eccles completed a hat-trick of victories in the Champion Hurdle on See You Then for trainer Nicky Henderson from 1985-87.

He, too, expects Hurricane Fly to do the business again after returning in style at Leopardstown.

"You would expect him to improve for that run," he said.

"It's more than obvious he's the one they've got to beat.

"If he gets there in one piece and good heart he'll win again."

Hurricane Fly's belated seasonal debut reminded Smith Eccles how difficult See You Then was to train.

"The unfortunate thing about See You Then is you never really saw that much of him," he said.

"It takes a very good horse to win more than one Champion Hurdle. To win three on the bounce he'd have to be exceptional.

"When you consider the problems we had just getting See You Then to the track in one piece, I thought Nicky Henderson's performance with that horse was one of the best training achievements I've seen in my lifetime.

"Hurricane Fly is obviously not straightforward either, but Willie Mullins trains him well."

Conor O'Dwyer's four winners at the Festival could hardly have come much bigger, as they were in the Gold Cup on Imperial Call (1996) and War Of Attrition (2006), and the Champion Hurdle aboard Hardy Eustace two years running in 2004 and 2005.

He, too, finds it hard to look beyond Hurricane Fly, saying: "If Hurricane Fly turns up on the day even the same horse he was at Leopardstown the last day, it's hard to see him being beaten."

Bloodstock agent Graham Bradley, triumphant on Collier Bay in 1996, was also taken by Hurricane Fly's reappearance, and has been particularly impressed by his ability to go on any ground.

"He looks a true champion judged on his performance at Leopardstown," he said.

"He seems to be able to do it on all sorts of ground.

"The ground was very testing and he ploughed through it like it was good ground.

"He's obviously had lots of little issues and is fragile, but there's no one better to look after him than Mr Mullins."