Donn's Articles » Hurricane Fly

Hurricane Fly

Reputations are fickle things. Lifetimes to build, seconds to destroy.

Hurricane Fly knows all about reputations. He arrived on these shores with a tall one from France in 2008, a high-class flat horse, winner of a listed race, when he had subsequent Champion Stakes winner Literato and Arlington Million winner-in-waiting Spirit One behind him. Then he won his maiden hurdle on his debut for Willie Mullins, easing clear of his field over the final flight, and his reputation grew.

The son of Montjeu enhanced his reputation further when he landed the Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse the following November. A Grade 1 win is a Grade 1 win, they don’t come easily, but it wasn’t that impressive a victory, he just got home by a neck from Donnas Palm. In mitigation, the pace wasn’t that strong in the Royal Bond, which didn’t suit such an easy traveller.

He got his fast pace in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown, and he blew us away. If you blinked, you missed it. He jumped the final flight just about level with Go Native, and he crossed the winning line 10 lengths in front of him. The turn of foot that he showed when Paul Townend asked him to quicken on landing over the last was simply breath-taking, the mark of a seriously talented horse. It was as if he had just joined in after the others had run a mile and seven furlongs.

Found to be lame the night before he was due to run in the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown that February, he was consequently off the track until the Punchestown Festival that April, but his absence did nothing to check the relentless march of his reputation.

There aren’t many horses whose star continues in the ascendancy when they are standing in their box at home, but that was the case with Hurricane Fly at the 2009 Cheltenham Festival, or not at the 2009 Cheltenham Festival, as it happened. His injury decreed that he skip Cheltenham, but his omnipresence in collateral lines of form was unmistakable.

When Go Native won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, there was as much talk about the horse who had beaten Noel Meade’s horse at Leopardstown as there was about the winner of the curtain-raiser. When his stable companion Quevega won the Mares’ Hurdle, the last race on the opening day, again the talk was of Hurricane Fly, who had finished two lengths in front of her in a Grade 1 race in France the previous June. Even when Mullins sent out Mikael D’Haguenet to win the Ballymore Properties Hurdle the following day, there was much conjecture surrounding how he compared with his illustrious stable companion.

Hurricane Fly was the ghost of the 2009 Cheltenham Festival. His absence was lamented just as much as his presence in the exploits of his peers was celebrated. It wasn’t surprising, then, that the masses flocked to see his return at Punchestown in the Champion Novice Hurdle that April.

The danger, as is the case with any absent hero, was that his reputation would supersede his ability, that his reflected glory would shine brighter than the source of the reflection. But that danger was quashed at Punchestown. He blew away the cobwebs and the doubts with his trademark turn of foot that took him clear of his field and left horses of the ability of Kempes, Riverside Theatre and Go Native floundering in his wake.

Injury plagued him again the following season. A sprain of a suspensory ligament in December meant that he was off the track again until April, frustratingly missing the Cheltenham Festival for the second year in a row. He did get back for Punchestown, where he beat Solwhit in Round 2 (of five), getting home by a neck from Charles Byrnes’s horse to land the Rabobank Champion Hurdle. But not everybody was satisfied.

To miss one Cheltenham Festival may be regarded as a misfortune; to miss two looks like carelessness. Reputations are made or broken at the Cheltenham Festival. While victory there can make up for 361 days of mediocrity, the converse is also true: to be acclaimed a true champion, you must win in the focused laser-beam that is Cheltenham.

Cheltenham conspicuously absent from his cv, the source of Hurricane Fly’s lofty reputation was questioned in some quarters. Despite the fact that he won three Grade 1 races in the lead up to the 2011 Cheltenham Festival, people pointed to the fact that he was beating the same horse (Solwhit) all the time, without fully recognising how good Solwhit was. They also pointed to the fact that no son of Montjeu had ever won at the Cheltenham Festival, without recognising the fact that not many had gone there with real chances.

Hurricane Fly was present for real at Cheltenham in 2011, and he put up the performance of a champion under Ruby Walsh. He travelled like a dream, he jumped like a cat, he quickened on the run to the final flight, and he stayed on gallantly up the hill to land the Champion Hurdle. Accolades deserved, exhale, reputation sky-high.

The abdication of his crown last March was an all-round shock. The odds-on favourite to land back-to-back runnings of the Champion Hurdle, considered more likely to win than to lose, there was a shroud of invincibility about him going into last year’s race. That shroud was torn when he could finish only third behind Rock On Ruby and Overturn. Reputation tarnished.

There was a suggestion afterwards that he was too far out of his ground through the race, that he was too far behind the leaders. But he was just four lengths behind Rock On Ruby at the top of the hill, and he was beaten by five and a half lengths. It wouldn’t have mattered a jot had he been ridden on the pace – it simply wasn’t the real Hurricane Fly.

Nor was it the real Hurricane Fly who went to Punchestown last April, despite the fact that he completed his hat-trick in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle. He was singularly unimpressive in beating his stable companion Zaidpour by two and a half lengths, and he went on his summer break with something to prove this term.

This season, different story, different horse. The performance that he put up in winning the Istabraq Hurdle at Leopardstown last month smacked of the Hurricane Fly of old. It wasn’t so much what he beat – Unaccompanied and Thousand Stars and Captain Cee Bee – as the manner in which he beat them. Everything was easy, he was fluent over the ground and his hurdles, and he coasted home.

That brought his record to 14 wins from 16 runs in Ireland and Britain, 13 of those wins at Grade 1 level. It is an incredible record. Today, in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, he embarks on the next phase of the redemption of his reputation. Victory would complete that phase, and lead to his next objective: the reclamation of his Champion Hurdle title at Cheltenham.

The Champion Hurdle stats are against him. Only one nine-year-old has won the race in the last 20 years, and only one horse in the 86-year history of the race (Comedy Of Errors, 1975) has managed to win the title back after losing it. Even so, his trainer appears to be very happy with him, and signs are that he retains most if not all of his ability. It is no surprise that he is clear Champion Hurdle favourite in most ante post lists this morning.

Reputation intact.

© The Sunday Times, 27th January 2013