03/12/2013 1:17PM

Cheltenham: Hurricane Fly delivers as favorite in Champion Hurdle

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CHELTENHAM, England – Hurricane Fly won the $596,000 Champion Hurdle for the second time in his career at Cheltenham Racecourse on Tuesday, going past defending champion Rock On Ruby in the final three furlongs to win the two-mile race by 2 1/2 lengths.

The 13-8 favorite, Hurricane Fly extended his winning streak to five in the Grade 1 Champion Hurdle, the featured race on the first of the four-day National Hunt festival. Trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins and considered one of that country’s best chances for a win this week, Hurricane Fly’s victory set off exuberant celebrations among the Irish fans.

The winner of the 2011 Champion Hurdle, Hurricane Fly was timed in 3:58.8 on good-to-soft turf. Rock On Ruby, who led for much of the race, held second, finishing 1 3/4 lengths in front of Countrywide Flame. Binocular, the winner of the 2010 Champion Hurdle, finished fifth in the field of nine.

There was a moment midway through the race when it looked as if Hurricane Fly might not win. After the fourth of eight hurdles, Hurricane Fly was fifth and lost a few lengths to Rock On Ruby. Winning jockey Ruby Walsh said the pace was fast at that stage.

“He ground it out today,” Walsh said. “He’s a true champion.”

Moving closer to the lead with a half-mile to go, Hurricane Fly took the lead between the second-to-last and final hurdle and held his advantage through the uphill finish.

“When Ruby got him back in the race, I felt great,” Mullins said.

The Walsh-Mullins team won the next race when the 9-year-old mare Quevaga took the Mares’ Hurdle over 2 1/2 miles for an astonishing fifth consecutive year. Tuesday’s race was Quevaga’s first start since last April.

On Thursday’s program, Reve de Sivola and Oscar Whisky, the first two finishers of the Grade  2 Cleeve Hurdle here Jan. 26, are the leading contenders for the $410,000 World Hurdle over three miles. Both geldings were 7-2 in the future book as of Tuesday. The race has a field of 14 and is the richest event on the seven-race program.

Reve de Sivola won the Cleeve Hurdle over three miles by a neck. Prior to that race, Oscar Whisky had won three consecutive starts, including the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle against two rivals over 2 9/16 miles here in December.

Before racing began Tuesday, the course underwent an inspection after temperatures fell below freezing overnight. The chase and hurdle courses were deemed fit for racing, but Tuesday’s cross-country race, run over 3 7/8 miles, mostly through the infield, was postponed until the end of Thursday’s program.