Stars realign for Ryanair rematch

Hurricane Fly and Jezki face off for the sixth time at Leopardstown today in a fascinating clash for the Ryanair Hurdle.

The concluding afternoon of the four-day Christmas Festival sees perhaps the most eagerly awaited event, with the score between the main protagonists standing at three to two in Hurricane Fly’s favour.

Most recently the pair contested the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, with Hurricane Fly rolling back the years to come out on top by two and a quarter lengths from the current Champion Hurdle hero.

Trainer Willie Mullins has been upbeat in his recent assessments of his 10-year-old, who seeks an amazing 21st Grade One triumph and a fourth victory in this race.

Mullins said: “No matter what Hurricane Fly is doing, it is going to be tough to repeat what he has done for the last few years.

“If you were a betting man you’d say he’s not going to repeat it and that Faugheen is the one on the way up.

“Hurricane Fly does his own thing on a morning as that seems to work well.

“He’s in great shape and he loves Leopardstown.

“Whether he runs in the Champion Hurdle or not, we’ll just have to see. He has other options and we might just keep him back for Aintree.

“I still have it in my mind that he wasn’t quite right at the end of last year.”

Ruby Walsh has been the man in the saddle onHurricane Fly for 14 of those top-level wins.

He said: “It’s a funny thing about the Irish psyche — when a 20-time Grade One-winning champion suddenly becomes the underdog and wins again, he’s hailed as a legend.

“There’s been plenty of knockers over the years, but I’ll argue with anyone about how good Hurricane Fly has been.

“He turns 11 on New Year’s Day and to still be competing at the top level is phenomenal after all he’s achieved.”

Jezki has been beaten four times in his last five races by Hurricane Fly, including in this race 12 months ago and in the Morgiana last time.

However, he did have Hurricane Fly back in fourth when enjoying his finest hour in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March.

Connections of the Jessica Harrington-trained six-year-old are expecting another exciting, but tough, encounter.

Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus, said: “We’re looking forward to it. Hurricane Fly is a great horse and is very good round Leopardstown.

“The ground looks ideal for him and he’ll be very hard to beat.

“Jezki’s in good form and it will be an exciting race.”

McManus is also represented by the Tom Mullins-trained Alderwood and Plinth from the Aidan O’Brien stable in a seven-strong field.

“They will both be out of their class but hopefully will pick up some prize-money,” said Berry.

Mullins’ second string, Arctic Fire, Gordon Elliott’s Triumph Hurdle hero Tiger Roll and Pat Shanahan’s King Of The Picts are the other runners.

Meanwhile connections of The Tullow Tank believe the six-year-old is again ready to show his true colours when he lines up for the Topaz Novice Chase.

Sandra Hughes’ bright young prospect had made an impressive chasing debut at Fairyhouse in early November, only to disappoint four weeks later in the Drinmore when he was a well-beaten fourth behind Valseur Lido.

However, it transpired The Tullow Tank, who was a Grade One winner as a novice over hurdles last season, was suffering from a lung infection.

Owner Barry Connell said: “He had the lung infection at Fairyhouse, but he seems back in good form again now.

“Everyone at home is very happy with him.

“Hopefully he’s back to his best and it will be onwards and upwards from here.”

Valseur Lido’s trainer Willie Mullins relies upon Don Poli, who made a winning debut over fences at Gowran five weeks ago.

Don Poli’s owners Gigginstown House Stud also have Very Wood, whose trainer Noel Meade also saddles Apache Stronghold. He was second to Valseur Lido in the Drinmore.

The other three in a seven-horse contest also have strong form.

Henry de Bromhead’s Shanahan’s Turn has struck twice at Punchestown this term, Pat Fahey’s Lots Of Memories was a good winner at Navan and Gordon Elliott runs Mala Beach.

He got off the mark over fences at Punchestown earlier this month after finishing second to The Tullow Tank on his chasing debut at Fairyhouse.

Meanwhile, Paul Nicholls might keep Silviniaco Conti under wraps and not run him again before the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The eight-year-old leapt to the head of the ante-post market for chasing’s blue riband after recording back-to-back victories in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day.

“The King George has always been one of my favourite races. We’ve now won it nine times, which is a bit of a record and I’d like to think Silviniaco could be back for the treble in 12 months time,” he said.

“He is a real stayer and gallops all day, so the big hope now is that he can show his true colours in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March. My gut feeling is that he will not run before then.”

Nicholls also saddled Al Ferof to finish third in the King George and would love to drop the grey back to two miles for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Festival.

“Al Ferof, however, has bags of speed so I will be doing my best to persuade his owner John Hales to let me give him an entry in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Ryanair at the Festival,” said the Ditcheat handler.

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