Hurricane Fly defied an eight-month lay-off and bottomless ground to record a devastating triumph in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown yesterday.
On his eagerly-awaited reappearance under Ruby Walsh, the 2011 Cheltenham hero left many -- including his handler Willie Mullins -- reckoning that this second successive win in the two-mile Grade One was his most accomplished performance yet.
Given the length of the eight-year-old's absence and the heavy going, not to mention the similarly facile manner of many of his nine previous top-level victories, maybe that says as much about the champion trainer's expertise as it does about the horse itself. Nonetheless, Mullins suggested that the 4/5 favourite "completely surprised me", after watching him cruise clear of Oscars Well in the driving rain.
"I don't know what the handicapper thought, but it must be as good a performance as he has produced.
"I'm not sure he enjoyed the ground, but Ruby said that once he put him into the race three-out, he just came alive. I couldn't be happier."
Thousand Stars made sure there was a proper gallop despite the appalling conditions as he took the five runners along.
Oscars Well lay second with Hurricane Fly third, tracked by his main market rival Unaccompanied with rank outsider Kalann at the rear. There was no change in the order until Walsh asked Hurricane Fly to close before the turn for home and he did so with the minimum of fuss.
Although absent since winning the Rabobank Champion Hurdle at Punchestown in May, Hurricane Fly showed no signs of lack of race fitness as he displayed his superiority in no uncertain manner to draw six and a half lengths clear of Oscars Well.
The winner's game stablemate Thousand Stars took third, as Unaccompanied failed to cope with the desperate ground, trailing in a long way behind in fourth.
Having twice taken Hurricane Fly out at the 11th hour earlier in the campaign because he wasn't happy with him, Mullins' decision to prolong his comeback was thoroughly justified.
A recent gallop at the Foxrock venue left the champion trainer happy that his stable star had turned a corner, though he did admit to having some doubts yesterday.
He explained: "I was anxious, because he was quiet in the parade ring beforehand and obviously the ground had gone.
"Earlier in his career we were always worried about his temperament in the preliminaries, so I was a little concerned that he was going to flop. But maybe he is just maturing.
"Everything has gone right since he galloped here, and it's a case of fingers crossed we can keep him like this now until Cheltenham."
Hurricane Fly was cut to evens from 7/4 by Paddy Power to retain his crown in March.
Walsh, like Mullins, enjoying his second win in the €71,500 contest after scoring on Brave Inca in 2009, had to work slightly harder to complete a double on Mullins' Boston Bob in the Synergy Security Solutions Novice Hurdle.
A Grade One winner at Navan before Christmas, the Bob Back gelding took time to find his stride, but gradually reeled in Lyreen Legend on the run to the last to justify 9/4 favouritism.
His win in this Grade Two completed a memorable week for owners Graham and Andrea Wylie, whose On His Own ran away with the Thyestes Chase for the unstoppable Mullins at Gowran Park on Thursday. Boylesports subsequently slashed Boston Bob's odds for the Neptune Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham to 9/2 from 7/1.
One that won't be going to Cheltenham is Flemenstar, which provided the popular Dublin GAA fanatic Peter Casey with a first Grade One by confirming himself the best two-mile novice chaser in the land with a stunning 19-length rout in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Chase.
The Flemensfirth seven-year-old -- whose owner Stephen Curran has spurned repeated advances to sell -- is unbeaten in its last three, and returned to a rapturous local reception here under the excellent Andrew Lynch.
"That's as good as the All-Ireland," the Tubbertown-based handler, often referred to as The Boss Casey, beamed afterwards.
"I'm choking. Isn't it great that he (Curran) hung on to him! I'm delighted he didn't sell, but whether he does now or not, I don't know. The horse won't be going to Cheltenham this year anyway, so I don't know where he will go next, maybe the Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse."
Lynch took up the running on the 6/4 market leader when the pace slackened at the halfway point, and Flemenstar thereafter drew readily clear of Gift Of Dgab.
English challenger Notus De La Tour kept on for third ahead of Lucky William, with Blackstairmountain a disappointing fifth.
JP McManus' colours made the winner's enclosure when Alan Crowe steered the Francis Flood-trained Senior Again to a second win in three starts in the two-mile handicap chase, while Ros Brin obliged for a second time on the spin under Stephen Gray in the handicap hurdle.
The mare, returned at an SP of 8/1, represents Co Louth-based George Kingston.