Trainer Willie Mullins arrives at Cheltenham 2015 with a stable of National Hunt royalty. But there can be little doubt that 11 year-old Hurricane Fly crowns the lot — and all Irish eyes will be on him in the Champion Hurdle.
Hurricane Fly, as champion trainer Willie Mullins admits, has never lost his coltish streak, his “buzziness” — (translation) a quiet Hurricane Fly is a sick Hurricane Fly.
The little bay gelding, now entering the dusk of a brilliant career, stands as one of Montjeu’s very best progeny, even though “The Fly,” as he is affectionately known by all, made his career over hurdles. And what a stunning career it is — 22 Grade One wins and counting.
In his most recent victory at Leopardstown in January of this year, he bested the record of the mighty Istabraq by one, to win his fifth straight Irish Champion Hurdle.
And was greeted by an adoring public:
So it is that The Fly is THE horse to watch — and to beat — at Cheltenham this year, despite Mullins’ fearsome contingent of Faugheen (also entered in the Champion Hurdle), Annie Power (Mares Hurdle), Douvan (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle), Un de Sceaux (Arkle Trophy) and Don Poli (Toby Balding National Hunt Chase). In fact, Mullins comes to Cheltenham this year with arguably the best stable of any of the big-time National Hunt trainers. Which, if you’re Irish, is exactly what it should be, since Ireland has long dominated the winners enclosure at Cheltenham. For the Irish, Cheltenham is better than Christmas Eve and excitement builds from well before Christmas into a national crescendo by opening day at the premiere National Hunt festival of the season.
In his lovely book, “A Fine Place To Dream,” transplanted American writer Bill Barich enthrals readers with his passion for the horses, trainers and jockeys of the Irish National Hunt. It is the year of Best Mate’s third Gold Cup, the year of Moscow Flyer, Beef Or Salmon and Barracouda, and Barich, in love and living in Dublin, delights with his behind-the-scenes account of the run-up to Cheltenham 2004. One of his visits is to the yard of trainer Willie Mullins. Mullins, himself a former jockey, is a rather conservative type, “meticulous by nature,” who has won more National Hunt races than any trainer before him. Mullins keeps up to 100 horses in his yard in any given year, including some flat runners. Most recently, he won the 2005 Grand National with Hedgehunter and trained the fabulous Quevega, winner of the Mares Hurdle event at Cheltenham for six consecutive years, beginning in 2009.
Here’s a look at the Mullins’ yard produced by the Racing Post. Hurdlers going to Cheltenham, featuring Hurricane Fly, together with Faugheen, Annie Power and Douvan are featured in Part One (below). (NOTE: For those interested, Part Two, that looks at the Mullins’ chasers going to Cheltenham, please see the Bonus Features at the end of this article.)
As his trainer points out, The Fly is down in the Cheltenham betting pools at the moment largely due to his age, as well as an unfounded conviction that he is predisposed to do poorly over the Cheltenham course. Although the gelding prefers ground with some moisture in it, he is quite capable of giving any course under any conditions his best effort. And although The Fly is now 11 years old, he’s coming off the best season in his National Hunt career, a career that began when he was sold to George Creighton and shipped to Willie Mullins late in 2007. The then-3 year-old was coming off a disappointing career on the flat where he had only managed to win twice. But The Fly’s bloodlines were just too promising to give up on him entirely and, once gelded, he began to learn a new career under Mullins’ practiced and patient guidance.
Conditioning the young son of Montjeu meant developing stamina through long gallops and teaching agility over minor obstacles at first. But by 2008, the little bay was ready to try his hand at Novice Hurdle racing. He won a race at Punchestown Racecourse in May and then returned to France to win the Grade Three Gras Savoye Prix de Longchamp Hurdle at Auteuil. Racing over the same course and distance at Auteuil in June, The Fly finished second to Grivette in the Grade One Prix Alain de Breil, and just ahead of his stable companion, Quevega, who would go on to prove a champion of stunning merit in her own right. Returning to Ireland later in the year, the Mullins’ trainee recorded his first Grade One win when beating Donnas Palm by a neck in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse in November 2008, followed by another win in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown a month later. Bypassing Cheltenham that year, The Fly returned to Punchestown where he scored two wins, in April and again in November of 2009:
What was becoming evident was that the little bay had talent, not the least of which was an explosive show of speed as he raced to the finish. However, his 2009-2010 campaign was short: The Fly started only twice, with a win and a third place finish before injury sidelined him for the rest of the season.
By the 2010/2011 season, The Fly was considered a senior hurdler and he put his skill to work, winning all five of his starts, including the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival on what was his first visit to the meeting at Prestbury Park. Started as the 11/4 favourite in a field of eleven runners, Hurricane Fly took the lead at the last flight of hurdles and won by one and a quarter lengths from Peddlers Cross. National Hunt legend Ruby Walsh, who was now his regular rider, was unable to suppress his delight as the pair returned to the winner’s enclosure.
Following a win in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle in May 2011, the gelding was given eight months off and returned to business in January 2012 to contest the Irish Champion Hurdle, which he won for the first time. However, things didn’t go his way at Cheltenham in 2012, where The Fly finished third to Rock On Ruby.
It was at about this time that “Fly doubters” emerged. The 2011/2012 season had been a short one for the eight year-old and even though Cheltenham was his only loss, the nay-sayers abounded. And it was also precisely here that the idea that The Fly couldn’t cope with Cheltenham was born.
Hurricane Fly began the 2012/2013 season in brilliant fashion, taking the Morgiana Hurdle in November by twelve lengths from Captain Cee Bee. A month later, The Fly annexed his thirteenth Grade One race winning by seven lengths. He then won his third consecutive Irish Champion Hurdle in January 2013, beating Thousand Stars by five lengths with the very good Binocular in third place. After the race, a pleased Willie Mullins confided that his champion had returned to his best form. But as Cheltenham loomed, it became clear that the pundits and bookies still doubted that the 2011 Champion Hurdle winner could regain the title. By now, The Fly and his hugely-talented team had gained the status of superstars, and thousands of “Fly fans” travelled over from Ireland to see their little hero take on the doubters.
As it turns out, regaining lost titles at Cheltenham takes some doing. Only Comedy of Errors had managed it, regaining Champion Hurdle honours in 1975. On March 12, 2013, Hurricane Fly stepped onto the course and into racing history:
The Fly ended his season by winning his 16th grade one race and his fourth consecutive Punchestown Hurdle, to equal the records of the legendary Kauto Star and America’s brilliant John Henry in consecutive wins.
Last year did not find Hurricane Fly in the winner’s circle at Cheltenham, but the 10 year-old showed that he could be impressive even against much younger talent. In eight starts, he only lost twice although, to “Fly fans,” the horse didn’t seem quite on his game.
As we heard from trainer Mullins (video above), Hurricane Fly acquitted himself with honour last season but was not, indeed, quite himself.
The Fly goes into Cheltenham 2015 vulnerable to young guns like the promising Faugheen. But as his 22nd Group One win (shown above) suggests, this champion hurdler is still more than capable of brilliance. Other than his age, it remains to be seen whether his constant partner, Ruby Walsh, will decide to ride him or will, rather, choose Faugheen. Walsh has said that he’ll use his head and not his heart to make a final decision.
But one thing is clear: whether he is blessed with the talent of a legendary jockey or not, Hurricane Fly will be carried every step of the way in the hearts of his legions of fans. And if, as was true of the noble champion Istabraq on his final appearance at Cheltenham, it proves too much for him, two things remain certain.
The greatest care will be taken to see that he comes home safe.
Hurricane Fly stands as one of Ireland’s greatest National Hunt horses and nothing, not even Cheltenham 2015, can change that.
(Video by Michael Greaney)
Faugheen, shown here winning the 2014 Christmas Hurdle, will go up against Hurricane Fly at Cheltenham this year:
Recent article on Willie Mullins’ Un de Sceaux (Arkle Trophy) with video :
Douvan, another from the Mullins’ yard, winning a month ago:
Annie Power in a 2014 win. Trainer Mullins says she’s “doing everything right” for her return in the Champion Mares Hurdle:
Finally, for those interested in the great Sprinter Sacre, who will also vie for honours at Cheltenham this year:
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