With the beginning of the March Cheltenham Festival now just six weeks ahead, eyes were focussed on preparations for the two main hurdle events at the meeting with significant races being staged at both Cheltenham and at Leopardstown this weekend. The Champion Hurdle picture remains as compelling as ever following Hurricane Fly’s fourth victory in the Irish equivalent, while the comeback of Big Buck’s in the Cleeve Hurdle proved that the four times winner of the World Hurdle should be in good shape as he attempts to regain his crown.
Hurricane Fly proved the stronger in a four horse race in Ireland when maintaining his unbeaten record on the Leopardstown track. He was opposed by both Jezki and Our Conor whom he beat in the Ryanair Hurdle before Christmas but a bruised foot had hampered his preparation for this race.
Our Conor looked the likely winner before the final hurdle, but Hurricane Fly showed his true battling qualities to win by just under 2 lengths from the younger horse. Both The New One and My Tent Or Yours will need to show their top form in the Champion Hurdle to have any chance of deposing the veteran title holder.
As for Our Conor, he appeared to demonstrate a lack of battling qualities when asked a serious question at the finish and there is a question mark as to whether he is one of many bridle horses which have enjoyed previous good reputations. Maybe he just needs a stronger gallop in races as all four horses in the Irish Champion Hurdle finished in a fairly tight group.
Over at Cheltenham, Big Bucks was beaten into third place by Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross when seeming to tire after the final hurdle. That is understandable given his long lay-off and the fairly testing conditions with trainer Paul Nicholls expressing his delight at the effort of his stable star who should improve significantly by the festival.
Once again, Big Bucks will assume the mantle of favouritism in the World Hurdle but At Fishers Cross also ran an admirable race when just failing in second place and he has suffered several niggling problems this season. He showed signs of last season’s dominating juvenile form and is still a horse to watch on the big day in six weeks.
The real dark horse in the picture for both Champion and World Hurdles is the Irish trained Annie Power. Following a facile win at Doncaster on Saturday, the mare retains her unbeaten record over hurdles and there is still no decision as to her race participation at Cheltenham.
Annie Power has yet to be fully tested on a racecourse and with the festival looming in a few weeks, the main hurdle races are becoming increasingly fascinating contests.