In June 2017, Leopardstown Racecourse announced that it would be hosting the jumps equivalent to the Irish Champions Weekend, with the Irish Champion Hurdle and Irish Gold Cup taking place over two stellar afternoons in early February.
The Irish Champion Hurdle has long been established as one of the significant races in the Irish calendar and has been won from the outset, by some of the great names in turf history.
The contest is a Grade 1 open to horses aged four years or older. It is run over a distance of about 2 miles (3,219 metres), and during its running there are eight hurdles to be jumped.
The event was established in 1950, and it is now one of two Irish races, along with the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, which can be seen as equivalents of the Champion Hurdle in England.
The first renewal of the race went to the reigning Champion Hurdler Hatton’s Grace. The Vincent O’Brien trained horse was a 10 year old and landed the inaugural Irish Champion Hurdle en route to his second of three successive wins in Cheltenham’s hurdling blue riband.
A decade later, Albergo became the first dual winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle in 1960 and 1961, while Winning Fair emulated Hatton’s Grace by going on to complete the Champion Hurdle double in 1963.
A year later one of the great chasers of all-time won the Irish Champion Hurdle as the young Flyingbolt, still the second highest rated jumper in history, made his mark over timber.
The decade ended with another horse famed for his future chasing antics, winning the race. L’Escargot won the Irish Champion Hurdle of 1969 and the following year won the first of two Cheltenham Gold Cups, before later adding a Grand National.
Similarly, the Irish Champion Hurdle proved the launchpad for another outstanding chaser in 1973, when future Gold Cup winner Captain Christy was successful, but during the Seventies, a vintage period for hurdling, the race lived in the shadows of its Cheltenham counterpart.
The first English-trained winner was Connaught Ranger, trained by Fred Rimell, in 1979.
The smart Daring Run landed back-to-back victories in 1981 and 1982, under Ted Walsh, while Royal Vulcan was a second English winner the following year.
In 1984 the race took on huge significance when the rising star of hurdling, the mare Dawn Run, took her chance.
Her brilliant victory preceded historic victories in the Champion Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup and she remains the only horse to pull off that double.
In 1990 Nomadic Way won the race for Robert Sangster and Barry Hills, connections more associated with big race flat winners. The horse went on to finish a gallant runner-up to Kribensis at Cheltenham.
The late Eighties and early Nineties were a tough time for Irish racing, with much of the best bloodstock sold to England.
Royal Derbi landed the race for Neville Callaghan in 1993, another trainer noted more for his flat exploits. Royal Derbi was an early big race winner for an owner who would again make a giant impact on the sport in Michael Tabor.
Dermot Weld’s Fame And Fortune won back-to-back Irish Champion Hurdles in 1994 and 1995 (the race took place at Fairyhouse on the latter occasion), but he failed to show his best at Cheltenham.
Up to 1996, Dawn Run had been the only horse to complete the Irish-English Champion Hurdle double in the same season for 3 years.
That changed when the rapidly-improving Jim Old gelding Collier Bay travelled to Ireland to record an impressive victory, before beating the brilliant Alderbrook at Cheltenham.
But a new era was dawning in the hurdling division, as the exciting novice hurdler Istabraq made his mark during the 1996/97 season. It appeared apparent to most that the former John Gosden inmate, moderate on the flat, was a potential champion in the making, in the silks of the legendary JP McManus and the training of the up and coming force in Irish racing, Aidan O’Brien. Completing the team was the multiple Irish Champion Jockey Charlie Swan.
For the next four years, Istabraq would dominate not only the Irish Champion Hurdle, but the entire hurdling division and jumps racing. Swan delayed his retirement to maintain the partnership which also yielded three successive wins in the English Champion Hurdle, with the horse often cruising alongside struggling rivals, such was his dominance.
His 2001 triumph at Leopardstown brought great emotion. Istabraq had fallen at the course over Christmas, in a race won by Moscow Flyer (who would become one of the great two-mile chasers in time. The pair met again in the Irish Champion Hurdle and Istabraq got the verdict as his rival fell.
But the great champion was nearing the end of his glorious domination and after pulling up in the early stages of the 2002 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, he was retired.
Charlie Swan would enjoy one more victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle aboard the mare Like—Butterfly, in 3003, his record-setting sixth win in the race, before he followed his old pal Istabraq into retirement.
But Swan’s record in the race would soon come under threat.
Irish racing – and in particular the hurdling division, started to dominate in the first decade on the 21st Century.
The brilliant Macs Joy gave trainer Jessica Harrington compensation for Moscow Flyer’s previous fall in the 2005 Irish Champion Hurdle in a race to savour, narrowly beating two English Champion Hurdle winners in Hardy Eustace and Brave Inca.
A year later it was Brave Inca, showing tremendous appetite for a fight, who under AP McCoy, landed the Irish Champion Hurdle before triumphing at Cheltenham.
Dual English Champion Hurdler Hardy Eustace added his name to the Leopardstown roll of honour in 2007, under veteran jockey Conor O’Dwyer.
The following season saw the ruling order reaching the veteran stage, with Brave Inca sidelined. The rising star of Irish hurdling was Sizing Europe, trained by young Henry de Bromhead, who had travelled to Cheltenham the previous November to land the competitive Greatwood Hurdle.
Sizing Europe would confirm himself a star hurdler with victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle, but back problems prevented him from running his race back at Cheltenham in March. He would go on to become a top class and hugely popular two-mile Champion Chaser.
A new order was becoming established but in 2009, back from injury, Brave Inca incredibly won his second Irish Champion Hurdle becoming the oldest winner at 11 years old. It was a first win in the race for jockey Ruby Walsh.
Solwhit was part of the new hurdling hierarchy and with the emerging star Hurricane Fly missing, the Charles Byrnes runner landed the 2010 Irish Champion Hurdle, one of seven Grade 1 victories in a stellar career, which included a World Hurdle win at the Cheltenham Festival.
But the next dynasty was imminent and Solwhit, as good as he was, would be over-shadowed by one of the greats in Hurricane Fly, a horse who was never beaten in ten starts at Leopardstown.
Hurricane Fly won an unprecedented five consecutive Irish Champion Hurdles, the first under Paul Townend and the next four under Ruby Walsh.
His fourth win in the race in 2014, saw him taking on a new generation of challengers in the exciting Our Conor and Jezki, a future Champion Hurdle winner. But around Leopardstown, Hurricane Fly was in his pomp.
The following season there were signs that Hurricane Fly’s powers were on the ebb and Jezki had seemed to have his measure the previous spring.
However, Hurricane Fly reasserted his class, beating Jezki twice before the pair met in the Irish Champion Hurdle in late January. Once again it was Hurricane Fly who prevailed, with the fast-improving stable mate Arctic Fire running past Jezki for second. But this was an unforgettable occasion and one all about Hurricane Fly as the Leopardstown roof was raised.
Injury had blighted ‘The Fly’s’ early career in Ireland but he made up for lost time and the Willie Mullins trained star won two Champion Hurdles at Cheltenham and 21 wins at Grade 1 level in all, before finally bowing out in 2015.
Some of the emotion on that day was undoubtedly because we knew Hurricane Fly’s marvellous career was coming towards its end.
Waiting in the wings at Willie Mullins’ Closutton base was the next star in Faugheen, who had been formidable and who Ruby Walsh elected to ride in Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle in preference to The Fly.
Faugheen proved brilliant as he won the Champion Hurdle from Arctic Fire who now improved past Hurricane Fly.
The new superstar and Champion suffered the first defeat of his career over hurdles when Nichols Canyon won the Morgiana Hurdle the following November.
With question marks now against Faugheen, he bounced back with a stunning victory in the 2016 Irish Champion Hurdle, winning by 15 lengths, the widest margin in the race’s history. His victory saw Ruby Walsh equal Charlie Swan’s six wins in the race. Sadly injured then sidelined Faugheen.
With Faugheen and the mare Annie Power both injured, the 2017 Irish Champion Hurdle was won by the grey Petit Mouchoir.
Annie Power was subsequently retired and Faugheen came back in 2017, with a brilliant victory in the Morgiana Hurdle, which promised much for the season ahead.
But Faugheen’s moment of brilliance proved a fleeting glance of his old abilities and he flopped badly at Leopardstown over Christmas.
He was still the subject of upbeat reports from Willie Mullins and many still kept the faith in the old champion, as he contested the Irish Champion Hurdle.
But the old fires were extinguished by Supasundae, who showed he had the tow for the shorter trip, before placing in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The race has continued to grow in stature and not only produces champions on both sides of the Irish Sea, but evokes some of the strongest memories in the sport.
Irish Champion Hurdle Winners:
Penny on the Jack
no race 1955
no race 1970
Fortune and Fame
Fortune and Fame