Hurricane impresses even the cynics
Our Will Hayler was impressed by Hurricane Fly - but still seems unwilling to forgive Tidal Bay past transgressions.
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Nobody knows more about Hurricane Fly than his old stablemate Thousand Stars. Not only does he see his old rival every day around the Willie Mullins yard, but on the eight occasions the pair have tackled each other on the track, it's eight times that Thousand Stars has been left with only a rear view at the winning post.
The consistency of both horses gives Mullins - and us - a helpful guide as to the pair's wellbeing, and there was a lot to like about Hurricane Fly swept past his opponent to win the Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown on Saturday.
Mopping up these kind of events at cramped odds has undoubtedly helped Hurricane Fly carve out such an impressive 14-from-17 strike-rate over hurdles, not to mention the fact that 12 of those wins came in Grade Ones.
Furthermore I was always the first to raise a weary eyebrow every time Hurricane Fly beat Solwhit (again) a couple of seasons ago (to my cost as I opposed him in the run-up to his victory in the 2011 Champion Hurdle).
But although beating up inferior rivals at 1/5 will justifiably lead some to have the same sort of reaction, there was something in his supreme dominance here that has quelled some of the fears I was left with after his defeat in last season's Champion.
It was interesting to hear jockey Ruby Walsh mention some of the rivals Hurricane Fly will have to conquer if he is to regain his Champion Hurdle crown immediately after the race - the likes of Darlan, Grandouet and Zarkandar.
Walsh kept his cards close to his chest as to which horse he might be riding in the race, even though Paul Nicholls has already gone public in admitting that he would like to lure the jockey to forsake Hurricane Fly for Zarkandar.
However Mullins retains unstinting faith in Hurricane Fly - he simply laughed when I suggested to him recently that Walsh's head might have been turned by Zarkandar's Cheltenham victory - and provided he comes through a possible clash with Binocular in the Irish Champion back at Leopardstown on January 27, I can't see Walsh jumping ship.
That said, I cannot find a hole to pick in Darlan's victory in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
While it's right to be cynical about the value of the form of any race run in testing conditions and - more importantly - off such a pedestrian early pace, Darlan was surely no better suited by the way the contest panned out than any of his rivals. If anything, he was less well-positioned than the likes of Countrywide Flame and Cinders And Ashes when the pace quickened.
While Cinders And Ashes has been left with questions to answer after two flat efforts (albeit on ground he doesn't like), Countrywide Flame is worth another chance when his stamina is brought more into play. Perhaps not surprisingly for a horse who was only getting going towards the finish at the end of the Cesarewitch, he couldn't match Darlan's burst in the final stages but was given only a single brush with the whip once headed after the second-last flight and I'd be willing to take a chance that he might still be improving, especially with plenty of punters and bookmakers so willing to rule his Fighting Fifth Hurdle win out as a fluke.
The Gold Cup market has also received a shake-up in the last couple of days, thanks to the victory of Tidal Bay in Leopardstown's Lexus Chase, and the bookmakers got things spot-on by cutting the odds of favourite Bobs Worth.
Rarely can the Hennessy form look quote so hot within four weeks of the race - even also-rans Carruthers and Ikorodu Road have come out and run well since.
At some stage, the effects of the breathing operation might start to wear off, but Nicky Henderson is keeping things deliberately light this season for Bobs Worth and he looks a very worthy favourite for the Gold Cup.
It was interesting to see Paul Nicholls hailing Tidal Bay as a reformed character, immediately after the Lexus and I caught the tail-end of a Twitter campaign to remove the horse's Timeform 'squiggle' too.
While I love a talented enigma as much as anyone and particularly one like Tidal Bay whose ups and downs we have been able to follow over many seasons (ah, the joy of jumps racing), I won't be persuaded that he has yet turned over a whole new leaf. In fact, it rather looked to me as if for most of the final half-mile, he wasn't doing much at all until Walsh managed to get the message through in the last 100 yards.
I take my hat off to him for cutting down Flemenstar et al, not to mention his durability and toughness over nearly a decade. But he still has to convince me that he isn't still a heartbreaker.
As for Flemenstar, the picture seems to be ever shifting. Immediately after the race, the Casey clan were adamant that the Champion Chase was the aim, but after further consultation with the horse's owner another tilt at three miles in the Hennessy Gold Cup will be on the cards first before Cheltenham plans are cemented.
While I sympathise with the Caseys' position on the Ryanair Chase, in that the race fails to light my fire to anything like the same degree as its older cousins, they appear to have put a line through by far the most obvious opportunity for a Grade One victory at the Cheltenham Festival. Maybe another team discussion after Flemenstar's next run might see a change of heart. I hope so, given the way he accelerated away from rock-solid rivals on the run to the final fence on Friday.