Hurricane force can topple young rivals
Every champion has to deal with rivals striving to knock him off his pedestal but at Leopardstown today, Hurricane Fly has to contend with a pair of whipper snappers threatening to usurp his status as the best two-mile hurdler around.
The Grade One Ryanair Hurdle is crackling with tension as Jezki and Our Conor make the leap from nursery to big school when tackling the reigning champion.
Hurricane Fly broke a world record for triumphs at the highest level when winning the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown last month but the manner of his victory left even his trainer nonplussed. He seemed a mere hologram of the horse that swatted aside Rock On Ruby, the last horse to mount a challenge to his supremacy, at Cheltenham in March but Willie Mullins senses that first run of the season sparked him into life and is confident that the Hurricane Fly on show this afternoon will be the 3D champion.
"Hurricane Fly is in good form and has had a trouble-free run since his win in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown. I feel he has improved a lot since then and I'm happy with how his preparation has gone," said Mullins. "It is a very good race but the testing conditions will have an impact. Hurricane Fly loves this track and has won here in terrible conditions so I'm hoping for the best with him today."
Our Conor blazed up the Cheltenham hill, leaving a shell-shocked Triumph Hurdle field trailing in his wake, last March but the Dessie Hughes-trained four-year-old hasn't jumped a hurdle in public since. His only outing in the meantime was in the November Handicap at Naas in late October and he missed an intended showdown with Hurricane Fly at Punchestown. Hughes has a wealth of knowledge to draw on when it comes to reaching the two-mile summit and is relishing the prospect of his young gun taking on the titan.
Hughes said: "I'm very happy with Our Conor and he is fit and well in himself. Although he hasn't run over hurdles since the Triumph, I don't see that as posing any problem to him. This is a massive step up taking on Hurricane Fly but it is a step he has to take. I couldn't be happier with him and I'm looking forward to the challenge."
The third factor in this hurdling equation is Jessica Harrington's Hatton's Grace Hurdle winner Jezki. Another young horse with apparently limitless potential, the five-year-old's only defeat in eight hurdle starts came in Cheltenham's Supreme Novices Hurdle. That Fairyhouse win was over two-and-a-half miles but the drop back in trip won't inconvenience him with the going soft.
"I'm very happy with him but this is a seriously hot race, it is like the Champion Hurdle but without The New One and My Tent Or Yours," Harrington said. "This is a big test for Jezki but he has done nothing wrong so far. It is another step up the ladder for him but the logical next move and I'm hoping for the best," she added.
Leopardstown survived one vicious storm on Friday and will have to face into the teeth of another gale today as Hurricane Fly blows the challengers into the middle of next week.
The early-risers should dominate the day's other Grade One, the Topaz Novice Chase, as Bright New Dawn for Dessie Hughes and the Pat Fahy-trained Morning Assembly appear to be the leading contenders for the three-mile contest. Fahy is delighted that Ruby Walsh is able to continue his successful partnership with the six-year-old and, on a line through Morning Assembly's defeat of Don Cossack at Punchestown, it should be a hat-trick of wins for the pair.
Fahy reported: "Morning Assembly is very well and has had a nice break since his win in Punchestown. He went away to work last week and I was very happy with him and he schooled well on Friday morning. It's a big day for him but he is in good health and has a top rider so I'm going to enjoy the day."