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Last Updated: 24/01/14 12:28pm
Hurricane Fly: Expected to confirm his superiority over these two rivals
Ruby Walsh believes a switch to Leopardstown's innermost track will help Hurricane Fly confirm his superiority over the young guns in Sunday's BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle.
Despite winning two Champion Hurdles at Cheltenham and three previous editions of this prestigious event, plenty were left questioning Willie Mullins' exceptional 10-year-old following a below-par seasonal reappearance in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown - a record 17th Grade One triumph - in November.
His Christmas showdown with last year's Triumph Hurdle hero Our Conor and smart novice Jezki in the Ryanair Hurdle was seen as his toughest test on Irish soil to date, but Hurricane Fly swept them aside with his usual panache.
The same trio again do battle, along with admirable veteran and likely pacemaker Captain Cee Bee, but this time on a tighter circuit than the one they faced over the Festive period.
"He hasn't won 18 Grade Ones for no reason. He's won them because he's a very, very good horse," Walsh told Racing UK.
"On Sunday in Leopardstown we'll be on the inner track, which is a sharper, speedier track. If you look at it coldly, it probably suits me a bit better.
"Hurricane Fly is an ex-high 90s-rated Flat horse. Our Conor is a Triumph Hurdle winner, but he is only a 68- or 70-rated Flat horse, he looks like a stayer.
"Jezki was a bumper horse, so you would imagine if you break it down and head for the tighter track, you'd be hoping Hurricane is going to hold them off again.
"He's in really good form. Paul Townend rides him in all his work and he's very happy with him."
The Dessie Hughes-trained Our Conor was beaten almost six lengths into third by Hurricane Fly last month on his first appearance over hurdles since his devastating Triumph Hurdle display.
Owner Barry Connell said: "We've been very happy with him since the run at Christmas. He's had a clear run and everything looks to be in order. He should strip a bit fitter and hopefully he'll be a bit more competitive, so we'll see.
"He jumped upsides Hurricane Fly at the last (hurdle) at Christmas, so we have to look forward to taking him on again. Hurricane Fly is unbeaten at Leopardstown, so we know he's going to be hard to beat, but we'll do our best and we know our ultimate aim is Cheltenham."
Our Conor will once again be partnered by Connell's retained jockey Danny Mullins, who said: "It was a great run the last day. To be going down to the last (hurdle) upsides (Hurricane) Fly was a great performance for a young horse.
"He'll improve a little bit more and all the vibes from Dessie are that he's been very happy with him since. It will be a great race again. We're the ones who need to step up - we were third of the three big ones - but we're happy with him at home and fingers crossed we'll have a better run.
"He travelled very well down to the last and was well able to keep Jezki in a pocket. He showed a lot of bravery there.
"Maybe he just got tired from the back of the last. There was no point killing him on the day. I don't think I could have finished second, but hopefully we might be able to reverse the placings."
Jezki made an excellent start to the season by winning at Down Royal and Fairyhouse and split Hurricane Fly and Our Conor at Leopardstown.
Jessica Harrington's six-year-old was beaten two and a half lengths and may have finished even closer had he not been hampered early in the straight
Harrington: "I have been delighted with him since Christmas. Maybe he was a bit unlucky there, but he ran a very good race and it was the first time he had come up against that class of horse.
"His preparation has gone very well and we will have to wait to see if he can get closer to Hurricane Fly - it all depends on luck in running and how the race goes."
Jezki's jockey Tony McCoy acknowledges Hurricane Fly sets a very high standard.
"He was a bit unlucky Hurricane Fly was running against him - like most of the other horses have been for the last few years," said the champion jockey.
"He ran well and got done for a little bit of toe. He was stuck on the inside round the bend, but he ran well and hopefully he'll improve for the run. He'll obviously need to improve, because Hurricane Fly won pretty well.
"It's a good division this year, the novices have obviously progressed and who knows whether the likes of Annie Power will turn up at Cheltenham, Willie Mullins has a pretty strong hand as Un De Sceaux looks pretty good as well."