With just over three weeks to go before a mouthwatering Champion Hurdle takes place, Racing UK's Alex Steedman tells us why a win for the brilliant Hurricane Fly would be his greatest achievement, and who the young pretenders are ready to take his crown...
"If Hurricane Fly (4.3100/30) wins the Champion Hurdle this year it should rank as his greatest achievement."
It remains a puzzle if not a sporting oddity that the extraordinary Hurricane Fly is regarded so contrastingly on either side of the Irish Sea.
Back home, 'The Fly' is considered a superstar of the sport by fans and a hero to legions of Irish punters. Up and down the lanes and towns of Britain however, Hurricane Fly is admired and respected but awe or even genuine affection are harder to find. It's a curious state given his is a record to make the knees wobble but will any of that matter come the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival?
The comment I hear most oft repeated in the bookies and bars of Blighty is the dual Champion Hurdle winner simply isn't anywhere near the same machine away from home where he beats up on familiar rivals anyway. Yes Solwhit and Thousand Stars have been ceded by Our Conor and Jezki but he's beaten proper Grade 1 horses 19 times now.
The Willie Mullins star has only been to three Festivals winning the big one twice and finishing third to Rock on Ruby in between, his sole defeat in 17 starts spanning more than four years. When Hurricane Fly missed the meeting in 2009 because of injury the Supreme Novices' Hurdle was won by Go Native, a horse he had obliterated on his previous run by 10 lengths. I'm no acolyte of 'The Fly' but lets dismiss that talk as daft straight away.
The more pertinent question might be is Hurricane Fly more vulnerable at Cheltenham where the ground generally tends to be better? Certainly the clock suggests this is a horse who excels on soft ground, in strongly run events and his Champion Hurdle efforts are revealing.
We know 'The Fly' has won his races at Cheltenham in times around 3 Min 54 and 3 Min 59, initially against middle distance horses Peddlers Cross and Oscar Whisky and latterly on soft ground. Though Ruby Walsh will beg to differ because of tactics, he was found wanting in the 2012 race when Rock On Ruby clocked 3 Min 50.
It remains to be seen if the Hurricane Fly will have to run as fast again given the rain we've had so conditions could well suit but at the age of 10, he is set to face the quickest group of young hurdlers lining up for a while. If Hurricane Fly (4.3100/30) wins the Champion Hurdle this year it should rank as his greatest achievement.
The are dangers at every turn, even from close to home where Jezki supporters will be hoping he gets a better ride than he endured in the opener last season and Our Conor returns to the scene of his Triumph Hurdle riot.
Jezki (15.014/1) hasn't got much to find on form and a proper gallop might see him improve while Our Conor has closed the gap in his two starts against 'The Fly' this term and looks ready to peak where it matters most.
Dessie Hughes has been here before of course as jockey and trainer (think Monksfield and Hardy Eustace) and last year's closing split times suggest Our Conor (6.25/1) is a massive threat to all. It could be that devastating performance was an equine 'perfect storm' but it could also have been a marker as to what is possible when opportunity knocks.
There was nothing to choose between My Tent or Yours and The New One when they clashed at Christmas and it's open debate as to what would have happened had the Nigel Twiston-Davies horse jumped the final flight cleanly. It would've been close either way and both are potential winners of the Champion Hurdle as part of this exciting new crop.
My Tent or Yours (6.25/1) looked sure to swamp Champagne Fever in last year's Supreme but stamina as well as a brilliant Ruby Walsh ride edged it out of reach. MTOY is more of a man these days, a far cry from the horse I saw fizzle to defeat in a bumper at Newbury two years ago but there are many who consider him a speed horse not one for 'the hill.' I think he might be over that now and like Our Conor, you just know he will be bursting at the seams with good health come the day.
The New One (4.3100/30) simply has to be involved though his jumping against elite two milers remains a slight concern for me as a fan. His blunder at Kempton was more extreme but he can ponder at a flight or two and you can't afford small liberties against fast, slick rivals. The New One has the gears to compensate for that to an extent and he is following in famous hoof-prints as Istabraq and Hardy Eustace both won the Neptune before dropping down in trip to land the Champion Hurdle.
This guy has push button acceleration and potentially that is the most potent weapon in this field.
Which leaves us with the not so small problem of Annie Power (17.016/1). I couldn't believe the Champion Hurdle was mentioned when she beat Zarkandar at Ascot in November where she was sticky at her hurdles and strong at the finish.
I'm still not wholly convinced this is a Grade 1 horse over two miles but the mare who beat fringe 140 (OR) rated horses on the bridle at Doncaster last time clearly has speed. She has been backed for the World hurdle but Timeform have her top rated in receipt of the mares' allowance and if she lines up in the Champion, Annie Power throws a rather large spanner in the works.
How perverse the irony if Hurricane Fly's tilt at greatness was thwarted by a previously unheralded lady from next door. There is though a sense this artisan deserves his place in history, that final recognition will ultimately fall at his feet in the gush of a third, Istabraq-equalling Champion Hurdle.
My sentimental soul almost demands as much. But history isn't kind to dreamers nor at times those approaching the end of the adventure as the congregation at Prestbury knows well. Hurricane Fly won't bow out like Istabraq or Kauto Star, that I feel is certain, rather he may find a new heroism in the flame of defeat as his torch passes to this bright, new generation.
Alex Steedman's Champion Hurdle 123
1. The New One
2. Our Conor
3. Hurricane Fly
Back Our Conor 1pt Win @ 6.25/1
Back Our Conor 1pt Place @ 2.285/4