Donn's Articles » Hurricane Fly v Jezki

Hurricane Fly v Jezki

Here we go again, Hurricane Fly v Jezki, the reigning champ versus the former dual champ. Difficult to believe that it is Round Seven already, but today’s bout is no less enthralling for that.

When this pair met in the BHP Insurances Irish Champion Hurdle on this day last year, it was Hurricane Fly who came out on top. Of course, Willie Mullins’ horse still reigned then, he was still the Champion Hurdler. Jezki’s sovereignty had not yet begun.

Jezki famously prevailed in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, and he was again superior in the Racing Post Champion Hurdle at Punchestown in April. It was at that point that you wondered if Hurricane Fly would ever beat the Jessica Harrington-trained gelding again.

He did. He beat him in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November, when they were both making their seasonal debuts, and he beat him again in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival. The score in their private duel is 4-2 to Hurricane Fly, and the bookmakers make the older horse odds-on to make if 5-2 today. So who is really the champion and who is the pretender?

The horses

The similarities between Hurricane Fly and Jezki are obvious. They are both top class two-mile hurdlers, cat-like over their obstacles, both possessing that unusual cocktail of speed and stamina that make them the champions that they are.

But there are differences. Firstly and obviously, their respective ages: Hurricane Fly is 11, Jezki has just turned seven. By the time Jezki was born, Hurricane Fly had already finished his career on the flat in France. Before Jezki made his racecourse debut, Hurricane Fly had already won nine Grade 1 races – three more than Jezki has won now – including a Champion Hurdle and an Irish Champion Hurdle. This is Rory McIlroy against Jack Nicklaus, not against Tiger Woods.

Interestingly, their sires both raced in Michael Tabor’s blue and orange silks, but Hurricane Fly’s sire, Montjeu, won an Arc and a King George, whereas Jezki’s sire, Milan, won a Great Voltigeur Stakes and a St Leger, and therein lies the difference.

Hurricane Fly is flat-bred. His dam won over seven furlongs in Italy and he himself won a listed race in France – beating subsequent Champion Stakes winner Literato and subsequent Arlington Million winner Spirit One – before he ever started jumping hurdles. Jezki is all National Hunt, his dam ran in bumpers, his brothers are Jetson, Jered and Jenari, all National Hunt horses, and he himself started off his racing career by winning two bumpers.

There are other differences specific to today’s race. Hurricane Fly has never been beaten at Leopardstown, he is nine for nine at the Foxrock track, while Jezki hasn’t won there since December 2012. Hurricane Fly has won four Irish Champion Hurdles, Jezki has finished fourth of four in the only one he has contested.

And while he won a Champion Hurdle on good ground, Hurricane Fly is probably at his best these days on soft. Jezki is at his best on better ground. The younger horse has won six of the seven races that he has contested on ground that has been officially described as good to soft or better. So if the rains come today, every drop will tilt the balance Hurricane Fly’s way. A drying wind, and it’s advantage Jezki.

The trainers

Willie Mullins trains Hurricane Fly, Jessica Harrington trains Jezki, both trainers household names.

They may have arrived into the world of racing through different entrances, Mullins a six-time champion amateur rider, Harrington a top class three-day event rider who represented Ireland at World and Olympic level, but it was always about horses for both.

They both announced their arrival as racehorse trainers in the mid-1990s. Mullins sent Tourist Attraction to Cheltenham in 1995 to win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and he trained and rode Wither Or Which to win the Champion Bumper in 1996, five months before he won the Galway Hurdle with Mystical City.

The Galway Hurdle also featured among Harrington’s early big-race wins, Oh So Grumpy landing that prize in 1994, two years before Dance Beat won the Ladbroke Hurdle and Space Trucker won the Fighting Fifth Hurdle.

Early signature horses? For Mullins, it was Florida Pearl, who won a Champion Bumper, an RSA Chase, a John Durkan Chase, a King George VI Chase and, remarkably, four Hennessy Gold Cups. For Harrington, Moscow Flyer, winner of a Royal Bond Hurdle, a Morgiana Hurdle, a December Festival Hurdle, a Punchestown Champion Hurdle, an Arkle Trophy, two Dial-A-Bet Chases, two Tingle Creeks and two Queen Mother Champion Chases.

But it was Hurricane Fly who provided Mullins with his first Champion Hurdle, and it was Jezki who provided Harrington with hers.

The riders

The Walsh v McCoy argument rages on. Who is the better rider?

Observe: Walsh on Kauto Star, Walsh on Denman, Walsh on Quevega, Walsh on Hedgehunter. Watch: McCoy on Pridwell, McCoy on Brave Inca, McCoy on Wichita Lineman, McCoy on Synchronised. Not easy is it?

It’s the Ronaldo v Messi argument re-packaged and re-presented.

It may be that there is no answer, and that’s okay. Both brilliant, both different.

Contrast their styles. Walsh still as a church mouse on top, motionless, smooth as a swan, but hands and legs and mind working non-stop in tandem with his horse. McCoy more visible, more upper-body, encouraging his horse, coaxing, cajoling, convincing the animal beneath him that he wants to move forward. But crucially, an understanding of, and an affinity with, the horse at the root of both remarkable talents.

And the stats. Walsh has been champion jockey in Ireland nine times. He has been leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival eight times in the last 11 years and, with 41 wins, he has ridden more Cheltenham Festival winners than any other rider, ever.

McCoy has never not been champion. Conditional champion in his first season riding in Britain in 1994/95, he was champion jockey the following season, and he has been champion every year since. This year’s championship will be his 20th, and that is as incredible as the fact that he has ridden over 4,300 winners.

What is not in dispute is that Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy are two of the best National Hunt riders that there have ever been. And specifically, today, you can be certain that neither Hurricane Fly nor Jezki will lack for assistance from the saddle.

Don’t forget Arctic Fire

It is correct that the preamble to this afternoon’s BHP Insurances Irish Champion Hurdle has been dominated by Hurricane Fly and Jezki. They are the headline acts, they are two of the two highest-rated hurdlers in Ireland, and between them they have won three of the last four Champion Hurdles.

But Ruby Walsh said during the week that Arctic Fire should not be discounted, and that may be sage advice. Willie Mullins’ second string in the race, and obviously passed over by Walsh in favour of Hurricane Fly, the Soldier Hollow gelding was only beaten a total of a length and three quarters by his stable companion in the Ryanair Hurdle four weeks ago.

He is officially rated a stone inferior to Jezki and 15lb inferior to Hurricane Fly but, runner-up in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham last March, he does not have to improve dramatically on his Ryanair Hurdle run in order to get in there among the big two. He should be better today on the better ground that they will probably encounter and, as a six-year-old who has raced just nine times over hurdles, he still has scope for further progress. He may not beat the big two, but he probably shouldn’t be a 12/1 shot.

© The Sunday Times, 25th January 2015