Hurricane Fly lit up his beloved Leopardstown with an electrifying and unprecedented fifth successive triumph in the BHP Insurances Irish Champion Hurdle yesterday.
Willie Mullins' brilliant 11-year-old seemed to be in trouble when the tempo increased down the back straight. The champion trainer had conceded beforehand that the drying ground wouldn't be ideal for his charge, so there was a sense the party might be over when he began labouring.
Hurricane Fly wasn't hurdling fluently as his old foe Jezki dictated the tempo under AP McCoy, but history has taught us that he has a fine habit of finding most when the need is greatest.
As was the case when his goose looked cooked at Cheltenham two years ago, Ruby Walsh coaxed him along without panicking. The wily old maestro up top was stoking the fire without pouring on the coal, but when he began shovelling, the response was stirring. The flame still burns bright.
Hurricane Fly chased down Jezki in terrier-like fashion between the final two flights. When Walsh switched him out to challenge, his willing partner found again. They approached the final flight upsides, and a blunder there finished Jezki, though in reality, it affected only the margin of victory.
"That was fantastic, unbelievable," Mullins beamed afterwards. "We are just enjoying days like this with him now. Someone asked me coming down from the stands, was I sure he wasn't five? His performances are what you would expect of a younger horse.
"He has beaten the reigning English champion hurdler twice this season, and we'll look forward to Cheltenham with him now."
For a fifth time in seven encounters, Hurricane Fly was patently getting the better of Jezki, a point acknowledged by Jessica Harrington. "Tony said he was beaten going to the last," she admitted of the eventual third. "We're not good enough to beat Hurricane Fly here and that's it."
The 11/10 favourite came home clear of stable-mate Arctic Fire to surpass Istabraq as the most successful horse in the history of the €110,000 two-miler. He was stretching his unbeaten record here to 10, and he returned to a hero's reception from his adoring fans.
Walsh threw his fists aloft as he entered the enclosure, a triumphant gesture that sent the crowd wild. For a horse that oozed such class in his youth, Hurricane Fly's tenacity has become his defining trait, and it was that courage that brought the house down.
"I was worried going down the back," Mullins said. "But in an instance like that, it means so much to have a mature rider like Ruby. He never panicked. When Ruby got stuck into him, he produced it. He keeps doing what needs to be done. If that's good enough for Cheltenham remains to be seen."
Hurricane Fly was slashed to as low as 5/1 from 12/1 for the March showpiece. With Mullins also responsible for the hot favourite Faugheen, Walsh faces the prospect of having to choose between his long-serving partner and a precocious young pretender.
"That's a decision I'll make about an hour after the declarations are made," the nine-time champion jockey said.
"This horse means a huge amount to me. I ride so many horses with potential, but for horses to go and deliver and repeat it - Kauto Star managed it, so did Big Buck's - it takes iron horses to do it and that's what they are. They're incredible horses and I'm just very lucky to have come along at a time when these good horses are around."
Mullins completed a clean sweep of the day's three graded races when Outlander took the novices' hurdle. Gigginstown Stud's Gordon Elliott-trained No More Heroes headed the market in the two and a half mile Grade Two.
However, as we saw when McKinley thwarted Tell Us More at Naas this month, choosing between such an array of talent can be tricky. Bryan Cooper finished fifth on No More Heroes, as Outlander turned the tables on his Limerick conqueror Martello Tower in the second Gigginstown silks under Paul Townend.
"We rode him differently today as he was a bit keen at Christmas," Mullins explained after the well-backed 5/1 shot came from off the pace to complete the stable's 21/1 treble with a degree of authority. "The Neptune would be my immediate thought now."
Cooper enjoyed better luck in the handicap chase when Henry De Bromhead's 2/1 shot Bishops Road held Heathfield by a head. He inadvertently struck the Walsh-ridden Heathfield on the nose with his whip near the finish, but the stewards were happy that the incident didn't affect the outcome.
Heathfield's trainer Tony Martin had taken a share of the maiden hurdle with JP McManus' McCoy-ridden Gladiator King (2/1), which dead-heated with Sandra Hughes' Prince Of Scars.
Hughes' 12/1 shot sported Gigginstown's alternative cap under Roger Loughran. Cooper would be entitled to feel frustrated after eschewing five winning mounts in all this month, but everything is relative.
The two-mile handicap chase went to Paddy O Dee (12/1), whose trainer Philip Rothwell hadn't saddled a winner since last April. His jockey Mark Enright has also spoken frankly recently about his battle with depression, naming Cooper as one of those who rallied round in support.
"I'm glad that I've got the story out there," Enright said yesterday. "Talking is the answer. I'm enjoying this, whereas a few months ago, I wouldn't have."