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Hurricane Fly

Hurricane Fly is a standard-setter. When he won the Champion Hurdle in 2011, he became the first son of Montjeu ever to win at the Cheltenham Festival. When he won the Champion Hurdle in 2013, he became the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to regain the Champion Hurdle title after losing it. He also became the first nine-year-old to win the race since Rooster Booster, and just the second since Royal Gait in 1992. That’s what champions do; they break moulds, shatter records, set new standards.

When Hurricane Fly won the Rabobank Champion Hurdle at Punchestown last April, he racked up the 16th Grade 1 win of his extraordinary career. In so doing, he equalled the world record held jointly by Kauto Star and American flat racing superstar John Henry for number of wins at the highest level. This afternoon in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, Hurricane Fly bids to take the record on his own by winning his 17th Grade 1 race. Almost as importantly, victory today would be the first step on the road that leads to the defence of his Champion Hurdle crown back at Cheltenham in March.

The signs were there form early. Have a look down through Hurricane Fly’s flat form in France, and you will see that, when he won a listed race at Saint-Cloud in March 2007, he had Literato and Spirit One behind him in second and third places respectively. Literato won four of his next five races, including the Group 1 Champion Stakes at Newmarket, and finished second in the French Derby in the other, while Spirit One finished a close-up second to Soldier Of Fortune on his next run, and won the Arlington Million the following season.

Hurricane Fly could jump hurdles too. We saw that ability when he won his maiden hurdle at Punchestown, and we saw it again when he landed his first Grade 1 race, the Royal Bond Hurdle, at Fairyhouse in November 2008. But it was his performance in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival the following month that marked him down as potentially something special.

Having jumped the final flight just about level with several of his rivals, the turn of foot that he showed from the back of that obstacle was such that he had put 10 lengths between himself and his closest pursuer by the time he had reached the winning line.

“He’s a horse who has everything,” said trainer Willie Mullins directly after that race. “Speed as well as stamina. I just hope that this won’t be the top,” he said prophetically. “I hope that he will continue to improve.”

Mullins toyed with the idea of running the novice in the Champion Hurdle that year. It would not have been the Mullins style. Keep novices to novice races, he has said. They only have one season during which they can race against fellow novices, so let them do so. It is difficult enough to win any race at the Cheltenham Festival, so why not try to win the race in which you feel you have the best chance? No need to enter the shark-infested waters of open competition until you have to.

It is a common sense strategy. Observe Quevega, five Mares’ Hurdles already in the bag, and the objective this season is to win a sixth. No deviation, no succumbing to the temptation that more lucrative prizes present.

The decision had already been taken for Hurricane Fly to run in the novices’ race at that Cheltenham Festival when, alas, horses being the fragile beasts that they are, a setback ruled him out of the entire meeting.

Hurricane Fly may have been absent from the 2009 Cheltenham Festival, but his ghost lingered there. His form lines were thrust centre stage. Go Native, the horse who had finished a 10-length second to him in that Leopardstown race, won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the first race on the first day. Then his stable companion Quevega, who had finished third, two lengths behind him in the Prix Alain du Breuil at Auteuil the previous June, won her first Mares’ Hurdle, the last race on the first day. People scratched their heads and wondered what Hurricane Fly would have done had injury not intervened.

Then he went to Punchestown and won the Champion Novice Hurdle there by seven lengths.

Hurricane Fly has run in 21 races over hurdles, he has won 18 of them, 16 of them at Grade 1 level, and he has never finished out of the first three. It is a truly extraordinary record by an extraordinary horse who has been managed expertly by Willie Mullins and who has been handled superbly by Ruby Walsh and Paul Townend, who rides him in most of his work. Even so, it is not a given that this season’s road to Cheltenham will end in victory and the successful defence of his crown.

Hurricane Fly has two main obstacles to circumvent if he is to reach this season’s goal. First, there is the age stat. He will be 10 years old next March, and no horse aged older than nine has won the Champion Hurdle since the 11-year-old Sea Pigeon won it in 1981. That race will be celebrating its 33rd anniversary in March. The Champion Hurdle is a young man’s race.

The six winners that went before Hurricane Fly last year were all aged five, six or seven. Rooster Booster was sent off the 11/8 favourite as a 10-year-old in 2004, and he was beaten by Hardy Eustace. Hardy Eustace himself was beaten as a nine-year-old in 2006 when he was seeking a hat-trick in the race. Even the great Istabraq, sent off the 2/1 favourite in 2002, could not win the race as a 10-year-old. The average age of the last 20 winners is seven.

The second obstacle that Hurricane Fly must overcome is the opposition. This year’s opposition is unusually strong. It is difficult to remember a year in which there was such strength in-depth in the graduating novice hurdling class.

Our Conor was one of the most impressive Triumph Hurdle winners in the history of the race last March. It is historically difficult for juvenile hurdlers when they take on their elders as sophomores, but Dessie Hughes’ horse is unbeaten in four runs over hurdles, and he will be a formidable opponent this term.

My Tent Or Yours won the Betfair Hurdle last February as a novice, and was not beaten far by Champagne Fever in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, while Jezki was a close-up third in the Supreme, and looked like a future champion when he exacted his revenge on Champagne Fever at Punchestown in April. And then there is The New One, winner of the Neptune Hurdle last March – the race that Istabraq and Hardy Eustace and Rock On Ruby used as a springboard to Champion Hurdle success – and impressive in beating the afore-mentioned Rock On Ruby on his debut this season at Kempton. If Hurricane Fly is going to retain his title, he is going to know that he has been in a fight.

That said, Willie Mullins’ horse is the reigning champion. He still sets the standard to which the young pretenders must aspire. And it is a sky-high standard that he sets.

Because that’s what champions do.

© The Sunday Times, 17th November 2013