On a day that racing mourned the passing of one of Ireland's finest horsemen in Dessie Hughes, there was a sombre atmosphere at Punchestown yesterday afternoon.
But those in attendance showed their appreciation for the legendary Hurricane Fly, who defied his doubters to win the feature Grade One Morgiana Hurdle for a third time.
The dual Cheltenham Champion Hurdle winner extended his world record of victories in Grade One company with yesterday bringing up his 20th at the top level as he overturned the odds-on favourite Jezki in a thrilling renewal of the two-miler.
Jezki was sent off the 8/13 favourite under Mark Walsh and sat in second behind the front-running mare Little King Robin with Hurricane Fly and Ruby Walsh watching affairs pan out from behind them until joining Jezki approaching the last at which point the pair jumped upsides and Hurricane Fly took the upper-hand for the first time in three meetings between the two.
Sponsors Stan James had been bold enough to offer 40/1 about Hurricane Fly winning a third Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham next March but he is now as short as 10/1 in places and although that still remains a mammoth task, trainer Willie Mullins was naturally pleased with the performance of the 10-year-old.
"I think you'd have to say that run was better than his last two runs last season which, for his first run of the season, gives me great hope if I can keep him reproducing that type of form for the season," Mullins said.
With Jezki managing to overcome Hurricane Fly at both Cheltenham and Punchestown back in March and April, there had already been talk of stepping him up to possibly contend in the stayers hurdle division.
Mullins added: "If things hadn't worked out today we'd have been thinking, but I don't think I have as much thinking to do now and we'll just go the normal route I think.
"I thought I had him fitter but when I took the rugs off him in the parade ring a couple of onlookers thought he was heavy. But his homework suggested to me that he was straighter than last year and that paid off. Obviously he is getting older but tactically I think Ruby was very good and we had the advantage today and in the type of race it was Jezki who had to commit quicker which left us with an easier task as we could ride whatever race we wanted."
Winning rider Ruby Walsh summed it up quite fittingly by stating: "Form is often temporary but class is always permanent."
While admitting it was "a great performance" by Hurricane Fly, Walsh said that he was less than confident going into the race. "I was probably the most pessimistic person in Punchestown coming in here but look, he is a wonderful horse. There was nowhere to be hiding out there today but I guess what he has always had is plenty of guts and plenty of determination and when I got to Jezki I always thought I was going to win."
Jessica Harrington offered no excuses for Jezki's two-and-a-quarter-length defeat by simply admitting: "We were beaten by the better horse on the day."
Mullins enjoyed five winners on the afternoon, with a double at Punchestown and a treble at Cork.
Punchestown bumper winner Bordini made a winning start on the track by claiming the finale under Patrick Mullins, with the trainer suggesting afterwards: "I would think after that I would be sticking to bumpers with him for the season."
At Cork, the champion trainer enjoyed an opening maiden hurdle double with French import Sempre Medici winning at 1/4 and Black Hercules justifying odds of 1/6, while Rio Treasure again caught the eye in the concluding bumper when sprinting up the straight to record a nine-length win under Aubrey McMahon.
Henry de Bromhead admitted, "the dream is still alive" after Shanahan's Turn claimed the Grade Two Dobbin's Florida Pearl Novice Chase.
The 11/4 shot made it two from two over fences at Punchestown and is likely to step up to three miles and in to Grade One company at Christmas according to the trainer.
Noel Meade is also likely to look at Christmas or possibly even later in the season for a next outing for Chancol who also made it two-from-two over the larger obstacles when winning the Grade Two Madigans Craddockstown Novice Chase in the colours of JP McManus.
"Paul (Carberry) broke this horse and always said he would be a nice horse some day. He's just a horse that needs time but fences have been a big help to him as he jumps so well."
Grade Ones could also be on the agenda for Gordon Elliott's No More Heroes who followed up on some promising bumper efforts last season to make a winning start over hurdles in the 2m6f maiden.
Sent off at odds of 2/11 following the withdrawal of Outlander, No More Heroes made all of the running under Bryan Cooper to score with the minimum of fuss and his trainer commented: "He's a grand big horse and we'll take it one step at a time but he's really a chaser for the future."