Donn's Articles » Leopardstown, Irish Champion Hurdle day

Leopardstown, Irish Champion Hurdle day

We have a saying in Ireland: Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann, his like will never been seen again. That’s Hurricane Fly.

When you run out of superlatives, you resort to figures. 22 Grade 1 wins, more than any other racehorse, ever; 10 wins and no defeats at Leopardstown, all Grade 1s; five Irish Champion Hurdles. Even Istabraq only won four.

We have another saying in Ireland: The best hurdler since Istabraq. It is a saying that is generally whispered, however, because it cuts through Hardy Eustace and Brave Inca and Macs Joy, but at least it stops at the start of the millennium. If you go past Istabraq, you are into freefall, so when do you stop if you do? See You Then? Sea Pigeon? Monksfield? Do you go back to Persian War? Do you go all the way back to Hatton’s Grace, and how do you compare a modern-day champ with a champion of the 1940s and 1950s?

And does it really matter?

It didn’t matter at Leopardstown yesterday. Half way down the back straight, it appeared as if all was not at ease with Hurricane Fly. The gap between the leading trio and the Montjeu gelding had lengthened a little more than ideal, Ruby was a little lower in the saddle than ideal. And yet, mixed in with the anxiety was the knowledge that he would pick up. We had been there before. (Cheltenham, Champion Hurdle 2013.)

Sure enough, true to form, Hurricane Fly did pick up as they left the back straight. He made his ground from the second last flight, joined Jezki on the run to the last and, when he did, you knew how this one was going to end. Willie Mullins said afterwards that you could have put your life on him pinging that obstacle, and he did. Jezki got it wrong, but it didn’t really matter. The engraver had started to cut Hurricane Fly’s name on the trophy again by then anyway.

They clapped and cheered as Ruby Walsh cantered back down past the stands to the one-furlong pole, Longchamp-like, as horse and rider drank in the adulation, and they clapped and cheered again as the victorious partnership arrived back into the winner’s enclosure. It has become the norm now – you can have a ‘norm’ after 10 – that Gail Carlisle takes the horse over to the hedge at the end of the winner’s enclosure so that his audience can see him close up, and so that the brave ones can reach out and touch his nose and tell their grandchildren. So she did, and they did, and they will.

Ruby Walsh said that, outside of Cheltenham’s amphitheatre, he had never known a reception like it.

Speaking of which – Ruby Walsh and Cheltenham’s amphitheatre – the rider has a decision to make now. Hurricane Fly or Faugheen. But that decision is for another day. Two days before the race, said Ruby. Yesterday was Hurricane Fly’s day again.

It was also Un De Sceaux’s day. In Clarcam and Gilgamboa, the Denham Red gelding probably faced two of the next best three two-mile novices chasers in Britain or Ireland in the Frank Ward Solicitor’s Arkle Chase, and he dismissed them readily.

The tactical plan was an open book: kick off in front, go fast, then go faster. His two rivals remained within tailing distance of him, Clarcam in particular matched him fence for fence at a distance of a few lengths, and Ruby Walsh said afterwards that the most surprising aspect of the race for him was that the others were able to lie up as close to him as they did.

Clarcam jumped the second last fence well and threatened to turn the race into a real contest. But Ruby gave Un De Sceaux a squeeze as they rounded the home turn, and he eased his way clear again, popped the last and won by 15 lengths.

It was a scintillating performance. He went fast through the early stages of the race, and he picked up off the home turn. He jumped accurately and efficiently, and he beat some of the best rivals that could be mustered readily. In so doing, he clocked a superb time, the fastest comparative time by some way on a top-class day’s racing, and a full 10 seconds faster than the handicappers clocked over the same course and distance a half an hour later.

All things being equal, it is difficult to see how any of his potential rivals can beat him in the Arkle at Cheltenham. Of course, there are the fences and the undulations, and he remains a free-going sort with two speeds: fast and stop. But he appeared to be a little more tractable than usual yesterday, and his jumping was assured. There is no reason to think that he is more likely to be found out by the fences than any other novice is.

Of the two beaten horses, Clarcam was in receipt of 10lb, so – highly talented young chaser though the Gordon Elliott-trained gelding is – it is difficult to see how he can reverse places with the winner in the Arkle. Gilgamboa did not jump as well as he had in his first two chases, and it may be that a step up to two and a half miles – the distance over which he won the Grade 2 chase at Limerick’s Christmas Festival – will suit the Enda Bolger-trained gelding better now. The JLT could be the race for him at Cheltenham now rather that the Arkle.

And the Neptune Hurdle could be the race for Outlander now after his impressive victory in the Grade 2 two-and-a-half-mile novices’ hurdle. Passed over by Bryan Cooper in favour of No More Heroes and by Ruby Walsh in favour of Killultagh Vic, the Gigginstown House horse travelled like a good horse through the race for Paul Townend.

He got a lovely split along the rail after the second last flight, and he moved easily into the lead as they rounded the home turn. Still on the bridle at the top of the home straight, he picked up nicely on the run to the final flight when his rider gave him a squeeze, he jumped that obstacle about three lengths in front, and kept on well up the hill to maintain that advantage all the way to the line.

In so doing, he exacted his revenge on Martello Tower, to whom he had gone down by a neck in a Grade 3 contest over three miles at Limerick over Christmas. Barry Connell’s horse kept on well up the hill after coming under pressure early, and it may be that a return to three miles will see him to better effect again. He would not be out of place in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle.

We have another saying in Ireland: Only six weeks to Cheltenham.

©, 26th January 2015