Mullins' fears unfounded as 'perfect' Fly raises roof
As Hurricane Fly was led into the Leopardstown winners' enclosure to a raucous welcome after emulating Istabraq with a stirring fourth BHP Irish Champion Hurdle triumph, there was a sense that he might finally be getting the appreciation he deserves.
Just as he had done in reclaiming his Cheltenham crown in dramatic fashion last year, Willie Mullins' exceptional 10-year-old showed that his rare talent is matched only by his inexorable tenacity.
When Our Conor served it up to him at the last flight in this absorbing Leopardstown encounter, his tenure as top dog looked in perilous danger.
He got into the root of the hurdle under Ruby Walsh, with a fluent leap from the Danny Mullins-ridden Our Conor giving the young pretender a distinct advantage.
However, Hurricane Fly got off the canvas to battle back for a brave one-and-a-half-length victory.
Our Conor still played a pivotal role in this epic contest. He got closer than at Christmas, but finding those inches to get by a horse that has won 19 Grade Ones is another story.
What a champion Hurricane Fly is. He came into this €110,000 event on the back of what Mullins described as "the worst bit of work he has ever done" during the week, with a bruised foot identified as the cause for his sub-par showing on the gallops in Co Carlow.
Incredibly, he emerged with his towering reputation further enhanced, and there was a poignant scene in the enclosure as this most bullish of horses endeared himself to the crowd.
In a moment, he went from his terrier-like self kicking out, to patiently allowing his head be patted by the crowd as his groom Gail Carlisle led him around the railing.
It was a serene gesture. Maybe it was a case of preaching to the converted, but it felt like he had finally been accepted as the second coming. People just wanted to touch him.
"I came off the gallops the other day thinking the dream was over – it was terrible!" admitted Mullins, who was visibly moved by the performance and the appreciation of it.
"Thankfully, that night we found a bruise in his foot and dug it out and poulticed it. He seemed fine the next morning.
"I would have loved to have given him another week, but the Champion Hurdle was on today, and these races only come round once a year.
"When Our Conor loomed up, that bit of work came into my head, and then he made the mistake. But he still had the guts to fight back. It was extraordinary. I have huge respect for the horse, and he is just where you'd want him to be now ahead of Cheltenham."
Captain Cee Bee led the field at an honest clip in Indian file, with Walsh coasting in his wings behind, seemingly brewing up a storm. Our Conor sat third and Jezki whipped in.
Having suffered interference when second at Christmas, Jezki raced keenly in AP McCoy's hands here, eventually finishing a disappointing last of four behind the totemic winner.
It was left to Our Conor to lay down the gauntlet, and Walsh, who punched the air as he passed the post on the 4/7 shot, admitted Dessie Hughes' pretender had him worried.
"When I missed the last, I thought Our Conor, being a Triumph winner, would really stay," he explained.
"But when I got a smack into Hurricane Fly and I got his head back in front I was happy enough that I would win. He has always had heart; he has stamina, he has pace and he jumps – he is the perfect racehorse."
Hurricane Fly is that, something to cherish. Yesterday's attendance was up 27.5pc to 7, 336 on 2013, and, going by the reaction of the racing public, he is now theirs to have and to hold.
After stretching his unbeaten record at the Foxrock venue to eight, Hurricane Fly was trimmed to 5/2 from 3/1 to secure a third Champion Hurdle in March by both Boylesports and Paddy Power.
Racebets held firm at 3/1, and go 8/11 that the winner of the race is Irish-trained, with 16/1 about the raiders filling first three places.
Walsh was in scintillating form, signing off with a fantastic 115/1 four-timer by way of a double for both Mullins and Tony Martin.
The Mullins-trained Sure Reef (9/4 joint-favourite) came from last to first in the straight to claim the Grade Two Synergy Security Solutions Novice Hurdle and could also be bound for Cheltenham, with the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle a potential aim.
Walsh also produced brilliant, albeit differing, rides on his two Martin-trained winners.
Quickpick Vic (6/1) made every yard of the running in the Leopardstown Sports Lounge Maiden Hurdle, while 9/4 favourite Wrong Turn needed every ounce of Walsh's strength to get up by a head in the Leopardstown Racecourse Handicap Chase.
The day's other Grade One saw Trifolium bounce back to his very best under Bryan Cooper.
Defy Logic started favourite for the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase after conquering Charles Byrnes' charge here at Christmas, but Trifolium, third in the 2012 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, ran out a ready nine-length winner this time from Felix Yonger.
The front-running Defy Logic burst a blood vessel, stopping abruptly three-out.
Trifolium (7/1 from 9/1) touched down in front there and was in complete command thereafter. It was a first success at the highest level for Cooper since he succeeded Davy Russell as Gigginstown House Stud's first jockey, and it was especially meritorious, as the 21-year-old passed up the third, Mozoltov.
Mullins' runner was the shortest price of the two by half.
"I knew he was in the form of his life but I didn't expect him to win," a delighted Byrnes conceded of his seven-year-old afterwards.
"We left the cheek-pieces off him this time and I think that helped him settle. We'll probably go to Cheltenham now for the Arkle Trophy. I didn't think I'd be going there at all this year but it looks like we have an excuse to go now."
Boylesports cut him from 20/1 to 8/1 for the two-mile feature and opted to leave the absent Champagne Fever, third at Christmas when undone by a blunder, their 4/1 favourite.
Russell, who was aboard Trifolium last time, took the next when steering Arthur Moore's Treat Yourself (2/1) to victory by an identical margin in the Sandyford Handicap Chase.
The bumper went to Dermot Weld's 2/1 shot Windsor Park, which ran out an emphatic winner for Robbie McNamara on his return from two months off with injury.
Weld said: "He was pretty impressive and will be even better on better ground. He has the potential to be a Cheltenham horse."