Hurricane Fly is hot favourite to retain his crown in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, but how good is the Willie Mullins-trained eight-year-old, and can he hang on to his title?
Retired, former top jumps-jockeys, Charlie Swan, Steve Smith Eccles, and Graham Bradley arguably know better than anyone, as they tasted success in the Cheltenham showpiece.
All three were impressed by Hurricane Fly’s comeback victory in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Swan will be forever associated with the hurdling legend that is Istabraq, on whom he shared the three-in-a-row glory years from 1998 to 2000.
“He’s very good and he looks a bit like Istabraq,” says Swan, who is now a successful trainer in Tipperary.
“It’s very hard to compare them, but he certainly looks the best around. He has lots of class and jumps really well. He has loads of gears and he stays well, too. He stays two and a half miles.”
Steve Smith Eccles completed a hat-trick of victories in the Champion Hurdle on See You Then, for trainer Nicky Henderson, from 1985-87.
He, too, expects Hurricane Fly to do the business again, after returning in style at Leopardstown.
“You would expect him to improve for that run,” he says.
“It will have knocked a few cobwebs off. It’s more than obvious he’s the one they’ve got to beat. If he gets there in one piece and good heart, he’ll win again.
“It takes a very good horse to win it more than once and you have to take into consideration what opposition he’s up against, which I don’t think is much.”
Hurricane Fly’s belated seasonal debut reminded Smith Eccles how difficult See You Then was to train. “The unfortunate thing about See You Then is you never really saw that much of him,” he says. “He’d have one prep race before the Champion Hurdle. He’d win it, then you wouldn’t see him for another year. I don’t think he got the recognition he should have.
“It takes a very good horse to win more than one Champion Hurdle. To win three on the bounce, he’d have to be exceptional.
“When you consider the problems we had just getting See You Then to the track in one piece, I thought Nicky Henderson’s performance with that horse was one of the best training achievements I’ve seen in my lifetime.
“Hurricane Fly is obviously not straightforward either, but Willie Mullins trains him well.
“It sounds like he surprised him when he won at Leopardstown and that can only be a good thing. If he’s won the way he did and the trainer thinks he’s won better than he thought, he knows there’s an awful lot more to come, and on that you wouldn’t be opposing him at Cheltenham.”
Conor O’Dwyer’s four winners at the festival could not have been bigger, as they were in the Gold Cup, on Imperial Call (1996) and War Of Attrition (2006), and the Champion Hurdle, aboard Hardy Eustace, two years running, in 2004 and 2005.
O’Dwyer, too, finds it hard to look beyond Hurricane Fly, saying: “If Hurricane Fly turns up on the day, even the same horse he was at Leopardstown the last day, it’s hard to see him being beaten.
“He relaxed so well there, it’s hard to pick any holes in him at the minute.”
Bloodstock agent Graham Bradley, triumphant on Collier Bay in 1996, was also taken by Hurricane Fly’s reappearance, and is impressed by his ability to go on any ground.
“He looks a true champion, judged on his performance at Leopardstown,” Bradley says. “He seems to be able to do it on all sorts of ground. That was as good a performance as he’s ever produced. The ground was very testing and he ploughed through it like it was good ground.
“He looked as good, if not better, than ever and he is the one to beat again. He’s a very well-bred horse and he looked very special when he won it last year.
“He’s obviously had lots of little issues and is fragile, but there’s no-one better to look after him than Mr Mullins.”
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