Paul Townend is under no illusions about the task facing Hurricane Fly ahead of his bid to regain the Stan James Champion Hurdle for a second time on day one of the 2015 Cheltenham Festival tomorrow.
It is four years since the incredible 11-year-old clinched the two-mile championship at Prestbury Park for the first time and he became the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to reclaim his crown with a rousing display two years ago.
However, the 22-time Grade One winner ran perhaps the most disappointing race of his career when fourth 12 months ago and despite defeating last year’s champion Jezki three times this season, Hurricane Fly has been deserted by Ruby Walsh in favour of the younger legs of stable companion and red-hot favourite Faugheen.
Walsh reasoned: “You can only ride one in the Champion Hurdle and I think Faugheen is the one that is going to win.”
Townend, who rides Hurricane Fly in virtually all of his work at Willie Mullins’ Closutton base, will get back on board for the first time competitively since steering him to the first of his five Irish Champion Hurdle wins in 2011 – and could not be happier with his condition.
“He’s a great spare ride to pick up,” said Townend.
“I suppose nobody ever thought Hurricane Fly would be a second string, but I’m delighted to get the ride on him and I can’t wait.
“I suppose being realistic he’s up against it. He’s an 8-1 shot for a reason, but saying that he’s been there, he’s done it and he’s in the form of his life at home.
“I’m just hoping for a big run, he’ll try his best and it would be nice to win a third Champion Hurdle. A lot of it is just natural ability, but it’s his will to win as well. He has the heart of a lion and he can just run faster than the rest of them.
“If you see him in the morning you wouldn’t think he was an 11-year-old.
“I don’t think it (drying ground) would help him, but it shouldn’t hinder him too much. If it did spill rain, we’d be delighted, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.”
The Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki has had a similar preparation to last year in that he has found Hurricane Fly too strong on home soil on each occasion, but the roles were comprehensively reversed at Cheltenham 12 months ago.
The JP McManus-owned runner enjoyed one final reportedly impressive piece of work ahead of his trip across the water, and Harrington is delighted with her stable star.
Speaking at Naas yesterday, she said: “He did a nice bit of work the other day. I don’t know who was looking at him working, but he pleased me. I wouldn’t say any more than that.”
Hurricane Fly, Jezki and Faugheen feature in a star-studded eight-strong field following the declaration stage. Mullins also saddles Arctic Fire, who has twice been defeated by Hurricane Fly this term. Danny Mullins, the trainer’s nephew, has been booked for the ride.
The latter said: “He’s definitely not making up the numbers. He’s going there with a good chance. If you look at Jezki’s profile before winning it last year, this lad has chased home (Hurricane) Fly a few times as well.”
But Faugheen is no bigger than a red-hot 5-4 favourite and jockey Walsh said: “I think his younger legs might be the difference, but there is every chance I might be wrong.
“Their last bits of work were very good, but I have just come down in favour of Faugheen.”
Annie Power – also ridden by Walsh – will take her chance in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle rather than the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.