Champion makes compelling case
Looking back, it still seems scarcely credible. A tight track offset by a small five-runner field and a brisk pace and yet Tony McCoy, the pre-eminent rider of his generation, still somehow managed to get squeezed turning for home, effectively out-ridden by a jockey not even born when McCoy was booting his first winners home on the racetrack. Today offers the chance of redemption or, most likely, the honour of defeat without caveat.
For sure, the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival wasn't McCoy's finest hour, but it was impossible to look back and conclude that it made any material difference to the outcome. With a clearer run would Jezki have finished closer to Hurricane Fly? It is doubtful. There was never a moment when the reigning champion looked troubled, imperious on a course where he has never been beaten, another Grade One tucked away with impressive poise.
He travels today in search of his fourth Irish Champion Hurdle and his 19th Grade One victory in all, the perfect send-off in his quest for a hat-trick of Cheltenham titles in March. He does so against rivals with serious questions to answer. Jezki will have to jump better and the younger Our Conor strip fitter. And that just so they might get to eyeball the champ and ask how much the years have taken out of the old pug.
There is, though, a disarmingly simple approach to today's race. If Hurricane Fly is even a reasonable fraction as good as his trainer insists, if the 10-year-old is, as Willie Mullins suggests, defying time and actually getting better with age, then there are no reasonable grounds to believe either Jezki or Our Conor, even allowing for improved performances, will be capable of turning the tables. Not on a day when everything seems in the older horse's favour.
That history is dead set against him going forward is indisputable. For all his seeming vibrancy, Hurricane Fly is 10 and 10-year-olds don't win Champion Hurdles unless they are particularly durable or special. In the 86 runnings of the race, just Hatton's Grace – very special – and Sea Pigeon – very durable – have managed it. However durable, Hurricane Fly is unquestionably a very special horse
Mullins would argue it vehemently. Hurricane Fly is the best horse he has ever trained and the sense he has been under-appreciated is one that weighs heavily within the Mullins' camp.
When the horse's achievements were questioned by two English-based commentators last month, Mullins' son, Patrick, launched a spirited defence in the letters pages of the Racing Post.
"Show him the respect he deserves," ran the concluding line. Mullins' defence of his father's stable star was eloquent and full of pertinent points. Basically, the charges against Hurricane Fly fall into two categories: that he has won too many soft Grade Ones in Ireland, beating the same horses time and again in the process. Mullins wondered why the same commentators raised no objections while Frankel was busy doing much the same thing. "When there is a champion," he wrote, "the competition looks weak because he is so far ahead of the rest."
You think too of Istabraq and wonder what more Hurricane Fly needs to do to bear comparison. Istabraq also won lots of soft Grade Ones in Ireland and beat his own stable-mate, Theatreworld, a good horse admittedly, in two Champion Hurdles, yet was feted after every big-race success and duly accorded status as one of the all-time greats. Nail his third Cheltenham title and the case for rating Hurricane Fly the superior horse becomes compelling.
He has been beaten just twice in 21 races over jumps, both times with extenuating circumstances. When he was third to Solwhit at Punchestown in 2009, Hurricane Fly was asked to make the running, a tactic not used before or since. When he finished third in the 2012 Champion Hurdle, it was only his second appearance in a disrupted season and Mullins was adamant he wasn't himself on the day. Perhaps he isn't at his best around Cheltenham, but that evidence isn't nearly as conclusive as many claim.
History might not be his friend, but he's still the one with the fewest questions to answer. Not just today but, assuming he emerges unscathed, the next defining day as well. Consider this: Hurricane Fly is currently disputing favouritism for the Champion Hurdle with the Nigel Twiston Davies-trained The New One, an impressive winner at the Festival last year and subsequently runner-up in the Aintree Hurdle.
Here's the thing, though. At Aintree, The New One had the Mullins-trained Thousand Stars less than a length behind in third. In all the times they have met, the closest Thousand Stars has got to his stablemate was just over two lengths at Punchestown in 2010 and that was when Hurricane Fly was returning from an injury lay-off. Maybe Cheltenham will be The New One's track but, at those odds, he is the one with everything to prove.
Take Willie Mullins' word that Hurricane Fly will be "five pounds" a better horse from the Ryanair, even allowing for his minor injury setback midweek, it's still difficult to see him losing this afternoon, all roads then leading to Cheltenham and, ultimately perhaps, the respect this great horse truly deserves.