Hurricane stronger than ever
EVERYONE wondered whether he could win on his first run for 269 days - even his master trainer.
However, not only did Hurricane Fly prove a long lay-off is no hindrance, he put in arguably one of his best performances yet.
A snug six-and-a-half lengths was the outcome as the sensational eight-year-old claimed a 10th Grade One success and went odds on to retain his Champion Hurdle crown at Cheltenham.
Willie Mullins admitted to being apprehensive prior to the race as the lay-off, the rain and the horse's seemingly quiet demeanour in the pre-race preliminaries had him wondering if yesterday would go to plan.
From the second-last hurdle of this contest there was little doubt though, as Hurricane Fly went through the field as if he only jumped in and joined them, and went away from Oscars Well and Thousand Stars with ease.
All the superlatives for Willie Mullins, Ruby Walsh and Hurricane Fly have been exhausted, but on this occasion they spoke for themselves.
Walsh, slightly modestly, admits to playing a minor role, and Mullins accepts the responsibility to maintain this form for just over six weeks, while the horse just continues to produce a 'wow factor'.
Amazingly, the horse was sent off the 4/5 favourite, the biggest price he has been in Ireland since winning the Hattons Grace back in December 2010, and he is now generally that price for Cheltenham honours in March. A delighted winning trainer admitted: "I actually thought before the race that he was a bit dead in himself. Normally it would take two people to lead him around, but today he was just going around on the end of the lead rein.
"When the jockeys came out he started to warm up a little bit but it was a bit of a concern. But maybe he is just starting to mature a little bit."
The ground was changed to heavy and probably made Hurricane Fly's performance even more impressive, while it could have been a valid excuse for the poor effort of Unaccompanied, who beat just the outsider Kalann home.
Mullins continued: "I hope he didn't have a hard race. At least we do have plenty of time between now and Cheltenham, but that is gruelling ground for a horse having his first run back."
Comparisons are made with Istabraq and despite true champions like Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace since then, Hurricane Fly appears to be certainly the best since the three-time Champion Hurdle winner and the debate will rage on for much longer. His trainer couldn't have been more impressed on this occasion.
"He completely surprised me. I don't know what the handicapper thought, but it must have been as good a performance as he's ever put in.
"To me it looked like they went a right good gallop and I'm not sure if he was enjoying the ground early on, but Ruby said once he just put him into the race he flew and I was delighted with him."
Having missed the Morgina at Punchestown, the Hattons Grace at Fairyhouse and the Istabraq at Leopardstown, this was an eagerly awaited return, and one that went beyond expectations.
Mullins continued: "I was surprised how fit he appeared to be today, so if I can just keep the lid on him between now and Cheltenham that will do me.
"Fingers crossed we can keep him like that until March."
So could Hurricane Fly possibly head to Cheltenham a better horse than he did 12 months ago? Everyone will be hoping that this sometimes fragile individual just gets there first of all, but if he does the signs are that, yes, he could be better than ever before, and if so an 11th Grade One and eighth consecutive will be nailed on.
Mullins answered the same question: "I didn't think so at home, but to me that looked better than I have seen him before."
For Walsh, he reflected on the same weekend last year as he watched Hurricane Fly, amongst others, win as he sat on his couch sidelined through injury.
The best jockey of them all appreciates the good days, as he too has had some very bad ones, and naturally Hurricane Fly brings a twinkle in the eye.
"He's just very, very good. He was as good today as he was in Punchestown last year, he's just a very talented horse. He had to work in Cheltenham as it was a more competitive race and had to beat a horse who had never been beaten in Peddlers Cross. He's an incredible horse," said the Kildare rider.
"With this horse, I literally am only his jockey. I don't do any of his work, any of his schooling. I have very little to do with him. It's all Gail Carlisle (groom), Paul (Townend), Emmet Mullins and Willie (Mullins), I only have the privilege of riding him on the racecourse."
He added: "You could argue he was as good in Punchestown last year but he always has been a hell of a horse. He's an ultimate professional and a pleasure to ride."