DERMOT WELD knows a good horse when he sees one.
Having trained so many big-race winners across the world, the Curragh handler is something of a doyen when it comes to judging horseflesh and he believes Hurricane Fly is a hurdler of considerable stature.
But ahead of Sunday's BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, Weld remains hopeful that his Unaccompanied has a live chance of toppling the odds-on favourite.
Willie Mullins' reigning champion hurdler, one of six entries for the prestigious Grade One at the five-day stage, has been cut to a best-priced 8/13 to make a successful seasonal reappearance in the two-miler, as Unaccompanied drifted to as big as 4/1 with Boylesports.
Twice a winner at the highest level at Leopardstown following her defeat of Thousand Stars in the Istabraq Hurdle last month, Weld's mare is unbeaten in two this term.
Bettered only by Zarkandar in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham last March, she has progressed steadily, though her Curragh handler is aware of the enormity of the task at hand. "I do think that it is very ambitious to think that she can beat Hurricane Fly," Weld admitted of Unaccompanied.
"She is a good, improving mare, and I think the best is yet to come from her. Hurricane Fly is an outstanding horse and he'll be extremely hard to beat, but I'm very hopeful of winning the race."
Weld might take further encouragement from Mullins' appraisal of Hurricane Fly's prospects.
While the champion trainer declared himself "absolutely delighted" with the horse after watching him stride clear in what he described as "more than a little workout" at the Foxrock venue on January 5, he was keen to play down expectations yesterday.
"He is a hard horse to train as he is so tough on himself at home," Mullins said of the Montjeu gelding, which has missed two engagements already this term. "I just want to get him right, and if he gets beaten, he gets beaten. Hopefully he will improve for the run. He is a horse that has a habit of getting himself into trouble at home, but he seems to be right now."
Although he enjoyed a trouble-free run throughout his Champion Hurdle-winning season, Hurricane Fly missed much of the previous two campaigns -- including the Cheltenham Festival in 2009 and 2010 -- after suffering training setbacks.
He confirmed himself as arguably the best hurdler since Istabraq by securing both the Irish and English Champion Hurdles en route to accumulating six Grade Ones on the spin last term, and would become the first horse to win back-to-back renewals of the Leopardstown showpiece since the JP McManus-owned legend won it for a fourth time in a row in 2001 should he oblige on Sunday.
Paying tribute to Hurricane Fly, Mullins, who has also left Thousand Stars in the race, said: "He is a hell of a horse, and probably only once or twice in your lifetime might you come across a horse with that sort of ability."
Oscars Well, Kalann and Voler La Vedette complete the potential line-up, with Colm Murphy suggesting that a lack of give underfoot at Leopardstown, where the ground is currently described as 'good', could see his last-named mare contest the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park tomorrow instead.
Also anxious for a drop of rain is Peter Casey, whose exciting Flemenstar is one of eight pencilled in for Sunday's Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase. "He seems to be in great form and the plan is to run," the Dublin handler reported of his seven-year-old, "but I'd be concerned about the ground as he needs a good bit of dig. There's rain forecast for Wednesday, so we're hoping they get a good drop."
Blackstairmountain, Notus De La Tour, Foildubh and Lucky William, the first four home in the equivalent Grade One at the track last month, are all engaged again. Tony Martin has not entered Bog Warrior, a faller that day, but he has put in Gift Of Dgab and Nearest The Pin.
Meanwhile, the 2011 Grand National runner-up Oscar Time will miss this season's Aintree spectacular after incurring a leg injury.
Trained by Martin Lynch in Castletown Geoghegan, the 11-year-old was purchased by Long Run's owner Robert Waley-Cohen for his son Sam to ride around Liverpool after finishing second to Bluesea Cracker in the Irish National in 2010.
Oscar Time finished fourth on his reappearance over hurdles at Thurles in November, but Lynch reported yesterday that his stable star "has suffered slight tendon damage".
"It's nothing huge, but it's enough to keep him out for the season," he added. "And while age is not on his side, we are hoping that with plenty of rest he will be able to return and have another shot at the Grand National next year."