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Hurricane Fly

Hurricane Fly was travelling well when he arrived at the final flight in the Future Champion Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown on 27th December 2008, but even those closest to him at Willie Mullins’s yard, privy to his sparkling homework, could not have predicted what happened next.

The son of Montjeu had moved easily through the race, but so had Go Native, both riders almost motionless as they approached the last. The result of the race hinged on how much each horse was going to find for pressure.

The reality, however, was that there was no pressure. When Paul Townend gave his horse a little squeeze on landing over the final flight, Hurricane Fly’s reaction was quite astonishing. He simply took off. Turbo boost. It was as if he had joined the race at the bottom bend, an antelope among a herd of buffalo. He put 10 lengths between himself and his rivals, Grade 1 aspirants all, between the back of the last and the winning line. It was one of the most memorable performances of the season, one of those performances that sent a shiver down your spine.

Comparisons inevitably followed between Hurricane Fly and Golden Cygnet, Edward O’Grady’s tragic hero, winner of the 1978 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle by 15 lengths in a faster time than Monksfield clocked in beating Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse in the Champion Hurdle on the same day, and cut down in his prime when he fell ultimately fatally at the final flight in the Scottish Champion Hurdle the following month.

Vincent O’Brien said that Golden Cygnet was the best hurdler he had ever seen. Edward O’Grady once referred to him as a James Dean-type character, an iconic figure. How do you compare a modern day pretender with an icon?

Hurricane Fly was a high-class horse on the flat in France when trained by Jean-Luc Pelletan. Winner of a listed race at Saint-Cloud in March 2007, in which subsequent French Derby runner-up and Champion Stakes winner Literato finished second, and in which subsequent Arlington Million winner Spirit One finished third, his form had tailed off somewhat by the time bloodstock agents Richard Hobson and Howard Kirk put the deal together that would bring him to Closutton. He wasn’t really for sale, but when there is a will and there are means, the way usually follows.

“He showed us a lot from day one,” says Willie Mullins. “He was a son of Montjeu, they can be difficult customers and he came with that reputation, but it was obvious that he had lots of ability. He was a colt when we got him, and we didn’t geld him until after his first few races with us.”

Hurricane Fly won his maiden hurdle at Punchestown in May 2007, his first run for Mullins, as easily as his reputation and his odds suggested he would before he went back to France to win a Grade 3 hurdle and finish second in a Grade 1. Only then was he afforded the luxury of some time off to prepare for a novice hurdling campaign.

Victory in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse on his first run that season was highly satisfactory, but it wasn’t exceptional. The pace was slow and he only got home by a neck from Donnas Palm. It was his performance at Leopardstown that Christmas that set him apart as a potential superstar.

“To be honest, I wasn’t that surprised by his Leopardstown run,” concedes Mullins. “We had been seeing that turn of foot at home here. But I was intrigued by what other people were saying afterwards. He had always shown us that ability at home. Around here he was always very special.”

A splint problem meant that Hurricane Fly could not travel to Cheltenham that year, but his reputation travelled first class. When Go Native won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the word went around that Willie Mullins had one that was 10 lengths better than that one. When Quevega won the Mares’ Hurdle, the rumour that she couldn’t get Hurricane Fly off the bridle at home grew arms and legs. And when Hurricane Fly won the Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown by seven lengths with his head in his chest, with Go Native and Riverside Theatre and Kempes toiling in his wake, even the agnostic onlookers from the far side of the Irish Sea were semi-convinced.

Cheltenham didn’t happen last year for Hurricane Fly either. He hadn’t recovered on time from a suspensory ligament injury that had ruled him out of the Christmas Festival in order for Mullins to get him ready for a tilt at the Champion Hurdle. Team Mullins travelled without him, Spain going to the World Cup without Xavi. Frustration again. Lady Bracknell would not have been impressed: to miss one Cheltenham Festival, Mr Mullins, may be regarded as a misfortune, but to miss (two in a row) looks like carelessness.

“A lot of the time, those injuries are not serious,” says Mullins thoughtfully. “If they happened with an ordinary horse, you’d just give him time off and kick on. When it happens with a good horse, though, the timing is crucial. If you miss six or eight weeks at the wrong time of the season, it can rule you out of most of the major races.”

You can empathise, then, when the trainer tells you that he is not looking beyond this afternoon. The BHP Insurances Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown is today’s business. You understand when he tells you that he is not mentioning the C word, why you daren’t ask him if he thinks his horse will come up the Cheltenham hill. Superstition never lives far from a racehorse trainer’s doorstep, and Fate is something that you just don’t want to tempt in.

Hurricane Fly takes on Solwhit for the fifth time in this afternoon. The Mullins horse has won their last three encounters, and it is difficult to come up with a reason why the sequence won’t be continued. The C word can wait for now. That’s tomorrow’s business.

© The Sunday Times, 23rd January 2011