Rock On Ruby loses out in Cheltenham Champion Hurdle crown as Hurricane Fly takes glory
Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh had believed all season that the true Hurricane Fly had returned and the dominant forces in Ireland were as good as their word as he became only the second horse to regain the Stan James Champion Hurdle crown.
Imperious in 2011 but now evidently a shadow of his old self when only third a year ago, Mullins had felt Hurricane Fly’s potency had been restored as soon as he returned from a summer holiday and he arrived at Cheltenham with three impressive victories in the bag.
While cheered from the rooftops as a 13-8 favourite might be for a feature event, his eventual two-and-a-half-length success over title-holder Rock On Ruby had looked anything but probable when Walsh began to shake him up at the halfway point.
Rock On Ruby and Noel Fehily had opted to set a punishing gallop with no obvious leader and he maintained it with admirable ferocity.
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But Walsh had been among those to have perhaps dismissed his claims a year earlier and the field were anxious not to allow the champion to get away from them.
Suddenly, though, Hurricane Fly had overcome his flat patch and was cruising on Rock On Ruby’s flanks, with man-of-the-moment Walsh driving him up the final hill to repeat Comedy Of Errors’ historic feat of 1975.
With Champagne Fever taking the Supreme, and Quevega making it five Mares’ Hurdles’ in a row, Mullins was also passing Tom Dreaper’s mark of 26 as Ireland’s most successful Festival trainer in a day he admitted would be “impossible to repeat”.
“I thought he looked very strong when he came back for the year, and I just hoped that if he could do what he had been doing on the track and what he had been doing at home, it would be enough for me,” said Mullins.
“A lot of my horses have come over here in better form than they were last year. He may well have put his all into winning the Irish Champion Hurdle in the wet last year, but he was stronger this year.
“I just wanted him to do what we knew he could do, and it means a huge amount for him to come back and prove his ability.”
Hurricane Fly, a fractious individual, looked anything but impressed with his hero’s welcome and he had given Mullins more to remember than a trophy.
He said: “He’s like a colt, really. I gave him a final drink this morning. I never turn my back on him but I let my guard down and, put it this way, I’ll only be able to use one side of a bar stool tonight! It drew blood. He’s always up to something, but aggressiveness is part of his make-up.”
Walsh said: “I can’t say I was overly confident – from the word ‘go’ he didn’t travel as well as he can.
“He has an unbelievably big heart for a small horse. He made a mistake or two, but he’s as tough as nails.
“I was in front a good two furlongs too soon. He pinged the last and I’m glad he got it back to show everyone he’s a true champion hurdler.
“He’s a wonderful horse. This took guts, determination and stamina.”
It was so near but yet so far for Rock On Ruby, who won a year ago when Harry Fry was officially training him from Paul Nicholls’ satellite yard, but now oversees the horse under his own steam.
Fry said: “We would have been delighted to have won, but to finish second to a champion like Hurricane Fly is no disgrace.
“Noel Fehily (jockey) said he’s run as well, if not better, than last year.”