Hurricane Fly confirmed he will not give up his crown at Cheltenham in March without a fight after clinching a fourth successive BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle in thrilling style at Leopardstown.
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Willie Mullins' remarkable 10-year-old was a 4/7 favourite to emulate the great Istabraq, the only previous four-times winner of this prestigious Grade One event, despite the Irish champion trainer admitting his pride and joy had produced "his worst bit of work ever" only a few days ago.
A bruised foot was quickly blamed for that disappointing gallop, but there were still some concerns as he lined up for a second clash with up-and-coming pair Our Conor and Jezki.
Hurricane Fly had beaten the two young guns in the Ryanair Hurdle at the Foxrock venue almost a month ago, but with Our Conor expected to improve for the run and Jezki slightly unlucky that day, both camps fancied their chances of closing the gap.
Admirable veteran Captain Cee Bee took the four runners along before the three main protagonists closed up rounding the home turn, with Ruby Walsh aboard Hurricane Fly and Our Conor's rider Danny Mullins both confident in the saddle.
There was little to choose between the duo at the final flight and, just for a moment, it looked like Dessie Hughes' charge might be getting on top.
But Hurricane Fly roared back and was a length and a half to the good at the line, despite a less-than-fluent leap at the last, with Captain Cee Bee and Jezki third and fourth respectively.
It was an eighth Leopardstown victory from as many starts for Mullins' superstar - and an astonishing 19th Grade One triumph in all.
Mullins said: "That was a huge relief. I have huge respect for the horse to do what he did, coming off the bit of work he did during the week.
"If he had been an ordinary horse he wouldn't have run. It was his worst bit of work ever.
"I was so disappointed coming off the gallops. I was saying to myself, 'Is the dream over with him and has he had enough?'.
"Thankfully we found he had a bruised foot. He seemed fine the next morning and he's been fine since.
"I thought when Our Conor came upsides him at the last he was beat.
"It was the first time he's ever missed the last and I was thinking to myself, 'There's that bad bit of work', but he showed his guts and he battled back.
"For the horse to come here with a bad prep and win that I'm very happy with where I'm at with him."
Sky Bet make Hurricane Fly their 3/1 joint-favourite for the Stan James Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, while Our Conor is a 6/1 chance and Jezki pushed out to 10/1.
Spokesman Michael Shinners said: "You just have to doff your cap to Hurricane Fly. He was our Price Boost today and looked to be in trouble at the last but found plenty to win going away. Clearly he's going to be very hard to beat when he goes to defend his crown at Cheltenham.
"Our Conor seemed to take a step forward from his reappearance and I'm sure his supporters will believe there's more to come next time while Jezki disappointed, although I'd be surprised to see such exaggerated waiting tactics employed again."