Willie Mullins could not be happier with Hurricane Fly as his stable star bids to regain his crown in today’s Stan James Champion Hurdle.
A winner of no fewer than 14 Grade One prizes, the nine-year-old is one of the most prolific two-mile hurdlers of the last decade.
However, he arguably returns to Prestbury Park with something to prove, having suffered a shock odds-on reverse when only third 12 months ago behind the reopposing Rock On Ruby.
Although he has looked as good as ever in winning each of his three starts this season, most recently securing a third victory in January’s Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, many bookmakers have been keen to take on the deposed champion.
While Mullins is never the most outwardly confident of trainers, he appeared in relaxed mood on the eve of the showpiece meeting.
Mullins said: “He travelled well, he’s in great form and I’m happy with conditions.
“I’m just happy with how everything has gone with our horse so far.”
Whereas last year Hurricane Fly suffered a truncated campaign, having just one run before Cheltenham due to various training problems, this year his preparation could hardly have been more smooth.
He said: “He’s doing everything right this year so I’m just hoping. I don’t think [pace] is a worry for Hurricane Fly.
“He has had three runs under his belt, he has done everything right and bounced back for every run right compared to last year when we just got one run into him before we went over there.
“We’re very pleased and hopeful at this point.”
Defending champion Rock On Ruby kicked off the season with a fair third in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham’s December meeting, picking up minor honours behind Zarkandar and Grandouet, who are both in the field.
He showed progress to win his most recent race at Doncaster, albeit in somewhat fortunate circumstances following the fatal final-flight fall of the exciting Darlan.
Although officially trained by Paul Nicholls a year ago, he was ably prepared by his then assistant Harry Fry, who has made a superb start to his own training career this season.
Fry said: “The nerves probably won’t kick in until they’re down at the start. At this stage, we’re all just really looking forward to it.
“He has really come to himself the last week to 10 days and we really couldn’t be happier with him. Ideally we would have liked better ground, but at the same time it could be worse.
“He came down the hill on heavy ground like the best horse in the race in the International and a lack of race-fitness caught him out at the end of the race.
“He’s obviously much fitter now so while we would prefer better ground, I don’t think it’s totally against us.”
Fry made a surprise announcement last weekend that Rock On Ruby would be fitted with blinkers for the first time at Cheltenham and he is hopeful it will help his stable star take his game to another level.
“We have been thinking about the blinkers for a while and after discussing it with Noel [Fehily] we decided if we were going to do it, first time in the Champion Hurdle is the right time,” said Fry.
“We’re hoping it will bring about an improved performance and after watching him in them at home, I can’t see any reason why it won’t.”
Given there is an obvious lack of pace in this year’s race, many believe Rock On Ruby could end up making the running.
Fry is hoping this will not be the case, but is planning to leave tactics to his jockey.
“We won’t know how the race is going to unfold until it’s already under way, but Noel will do whatever is best for our horse,” he said.
“He’ll have a plan A, B and C and we’ll just have to see what happens.”
Fry is in no doubt about which of Rock On Ruby’s opponents poses the biggest threat.
He said: “I think a fully fit and revved-up Hurricane Fly is obviously going to be heard to beat. His record is outstanding, he has obviously had a much better preparation this year and his team sound much happier.
“But, we beat him last year, and we’re hoping we can do it again.”
Despite losing Rock On Ruby, Nicholls still has a major Champion Hurdle contender in the shape of Zarkandar.
Winner of the 2011 Triumph Hurdle and fifth in last year’s Champion, he has looked an improved animal in winning each of his three starts this term.
With Walsh unsurprisingly choosing Hurricane Fly, Daryl Jacob comes in for the ride.
Nicholls said: “He’s a seven-time winner from nine runs, he’s won a Triumph and is unbeaten this year, but Ruby couldn’t get off Hurricane Fly.
“He keeps on winning, he’s not flashy. He’s off the bridle for a long way and keeps on galloping up that Cheltenham hill, which is what you want.
“I was pleased the ground will be testing, as that’s ideal for him.”
The two hopes for the north of England are Countrywide Flame and Cinders And Ashes, winners of last year’s Triumph and Supreme Novices’ Hurdles respectively.
John Quinn is hopeful a return to Cheltenham will help Countrywide Flame rediscover his best form.
He said: “He’s upped his ante.
“I’d hope he’d have a position were he was staying on and would have the leaders in their sights turning in.
“He’s won at Cheltenham, if it’s horses for courses we know he likes it there.
“He’s not the type to burn up the gallops but we’d know if something was wrong.
“He has to improve but he could.”
Cinders And Ashes was well beaten by Countrywide Flame in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle earlier in the season and was also behind that opponent in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
Trainer Donald McCain was hoping a return to better ground would help his six-year-old bounce back, but conditions are unlikely to be ideal this week.
“I’m very happy with him. He’s in great nick, but the ground has gone against him,” said McCain.
“He’s been unfortunate that he’s had two runs on horrendous ground. People will point out and say he’s won on heavy but that was a novice hurdle, not in Grade One company, there’s a massive difference.”
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