Donn's Articles » Hurricane Fly v Jezki

It is not as much Borg v McEnroe today at Punchestown as it is Sampras v Becker: the new champion against the old champion who was the new champion not so long ago.

Jezki is the new champion. JP McManus’ horse skulked into the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last March largely unannounced. All the talk was of Hurricane Fly and My Tent Or Yours and Our Conor and The New One. Could one of the three youngsters de-throne the reigning champ, went the narrative.

Trainer Jessica Harrington said that the Milan gelding was in the form of his life going into the race, that people should not under-estimate him, but they did. They allowed him go off at 9/1, and he duly bounded up the hill under Barry Geraghty to get home by a neck from My Tent Or Yours, with Hurricane Fly five lengths back in fourth.

Defeat was a strange one for Hurricane Fly. The reigning champ, undisputed, as it were, Willie Mullins’ horse had not been beaten in two years. Between the 2012 Champion Hurdle and the 2014 Champion Hurdle, the Montjeu gelding had run in nine races, and he had won all nine. All were Grade 1 contests, and in there among them was a Champion Hurdle and two Irish Champion Hurdles.

Those nine wins brought Hurricane Fly’s record over hurdles to 21 wins from 24 runs. Among those 21 wins were 19 Grade 1s: more wins at the highest level than any other racehorse, ever.

Hurricane Fly won his first Champion Hurdle in 2011 at the age of seven and, after losing his crown 12 months later, he went back in 2013 to re-claim it. In so doing, he became the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to re-gain the champion’s title after losing it.

But Jezki is the reigning champ. Still only six, he is the youngest Champion Hurdler since Binocular, and he is just the third six-year-old to win the race since the brilliant six-year-old Istabraq won the first of his three in 1998.

Jezki has won nine of his 12 races over hurdles, his strike rate of 75% only slightly lower than Hurricane Fly’s 80%. Two of his three defeats were at the hands of Hurricane Fly last season, his other was in the 2013 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, when he finished a close-up third. Like Hurricane Fly, he has never finished worse than fourth in a hurdle race, and he has only once finished outside the first three.

Coincidentally, both horses charted remarkably similar paths through their respective freshman seasons. Both won the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse in early December (Hurricane Fly in 2008, Jezki in 2012), and both won the Future Champions’ Novices’ Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, Hurricane Fly by 10 lengths, Jezki by six.

While Jezki made it to Cheltenham for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in the spring of his novice season, however, injury ruled Hurricane Fly out of the Festival during his novice year. Even so, both horses returned to the Punchestown Festival in April to win the Champion Novices’ Hurdle.

Time marches on. Hurricane Fly’s best days are probably behind him, Jezki’s best are hopefully in front of him. Yet the score in their private duel is 2-2. Hurricane Fly won the Ryanair Hurdle and the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown last winter, races in which Jezki finished second and fourth respectively; Jezki won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Champion Hurdle at Punchestown in the spring, races in which Hurricane Fly finished fourth and second respectively.

Hurricane Fly’s rider Ruby Walsh made the point during the week, however, that, while the scores are level, Jezki has come out on top in their two most recent meetings. It is the younger horse who is in the ascendancy.

That said, today’s contest, the Morgiana Hurdle, is Hurricane Fly’s race. He has won the last two renewals of the race, he loves Punchestown and he goes well on his seasonal debut. His record at Punchestown reads 1131111112 and his record on his seasonal debut since he joined Willie Mullins in 2008 reads 1131111.

Jezki has never run in the Morgiana Hurdle before, but his record at Punchestown reads 11, while his record on his debut reads 151. We do not have the depth to the body of evidence that we have with Hurricane Fly, but Jezki’s figures are impressive nevertheless.

In one sense, today is a starting point for both horses this year, it is a stepping stone into the season. It is a race from which both horses can build and progress as the season develops. In another, however, it is a race that neither set of connections will want to lose.

Willie Mullins reports that he is very happy with Hurricane Fly. Jessica Harrington says that Jezki has never been better. Also, significantly, Jezki wears his hood again today. He wore his hood for the first time when he won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, putting up the best performance of his career in the process, and he wore it again when he came back to Punchestown and beat Hurricane Fly again in the Racing Post Champion Hurdle in April.

With Mark Walsh riding Jezki in a race for the first time today, it would have been easy to have left the hood off, see how he got on without it, ease his way into the season. But no. The fact that the hood has been declared is a signal of intent. This is a Grade 1 race, it is an €80,000 race, it is a serious race and it is there to be won.

Defeat for the vanquished will be a negative, no question. If Jezki is defeated, it will arrest his champion’s march. If Hurricane Fly is beaten, it could cause a re-think, perhaps a step up in trip to two and a half miles, maybe three. It could lead to sights being trained this season on the World Hurdle instead of the Champion Hurdle.

Victory for the victor will be a significant positive. Should Jezki win, it will be another step forward for him, confirmation of his champion status. For Hurricane Fly, it would be the return of the champ, his third Morgiana Hurdle in a row, his 20th Grade 1 win.

There is much at stake. Play.

ST 16th Nov