The eight-year-old was a brilliant winner of the showpiece event on the opening day of last year’s Festival and while he suffered a surprise defeat at the hands of stable companion Nichols Canyon on his seasonal reappearance in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, he bounced back with a second win in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle.
That was followed by a scintillating performance in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown last month.
He was odds-on across the board to strike gold once more at Prestbury Park next month, but will have to watch on from the sidelines after suffering a suspensory ligament injury, with Mullins deciding to draw stumps for the campaign.
“We were starting back his countdown to Cheltenham. We had given him a nice easy time after Leopardstown and since we started back there was a little bit of soreness in his suspensory ligament,” said the champion trainer.
“I gave him a few easy days and we went back at it again, and it flared up again yesterday morning which we confirmed this morning.
“It’s a small injury, but just bad timing, a bit like Hurricane Fly was when he missed Cheltenham.
“The prognosis is very good but I don’t think we are going to have him back for Punchestown. We will just call it quits for this season and hopefully come back as good as new next season.
“We have a very good record with putting that type of injury back without recurring. Of course it can always recur but, from what we can see on a scanner, it’s very slight and not a bad injury but just the wrong timing.
“It really needs eight or nine weeks rest, and that would be plenty, unfortunately that rules out all of the rest of the National Hunt season.
“Our vet tells me he will be back 100 per cent after it.”
Ruby Walsh has ridden Faugheen in 11 races, including at Cheltenham last year, and looked visibly shaken by the news of his enforced absence - moments after riding stablemate Annie Power to victory at Punchestown.
He said: “Willie told me on the way racing. It’s disappointing.
“It’s like someone whipping the ace out of the pack and handing you the rest of the cards.”
Faugheen’s absence has unsurprisingly caused a major shake-up in the ante-post betting for the Champion Hurdle, but Mullins retains a formidable hand. Last year’s runner-up Arctic Fire was initially installed as the new favourite by some bookmakers, having chased home Faugheen in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
But in a fascinating twist, Annie Power, who was previously under consideration for either the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle or the World Hurdle at Cheltenham, could now enter the Champion Hurdle reckoning following her successful reappearance just moments after the news of Faugheen’s injury broke.
She would need to be supplemented on March 9 at a cost of £20,000, but the sponsors make her their 9-4 market-leader, ahead of Arctic Fire at 3-1 and Nichols Canyon at 9-2.
Mullins said: “We still have Arctic Fire, Nichols Canyon and Sempre Medici for the Champion.” On hearing Annie Power is the new favourite, he added: “It looks like we will have to supplement her then. That’s interesting.
“The other horses are racing fit but she is not racing fit.
“You would love to get another run, but there isn’t time.”
9-4 Annie Power, 3-1 Arctic Fire, 9-2 Nichols Canyon, 11-2 Identity Thief, 6-1 My Tent Or Yours, 8-1 The New One, 16-1 Peace And Co, 20-1 Sempre Medici, 20-1 Camping Ground, 25-1 bar.
- Don Cossack and Vautour are among 21 horses still in contention for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup following the latest scratchings deadline for the six non-novice Grade One events at the Festival.
Gordon Elliott’s Don Cossack and the Willie Mullins-trained Vautour currently dispute favouritism for the blue riband on March 18 and are among 13 possible contenders from Ireland.
Mullins could also call upon last year’s runner-up Djakadam and RSA Chase hero Don Poli, among others, but Don Cossack is Elliott’s only remaining entrant after he scratched Roi Du Mee and his star novice chaser No More Heroes.
Eleven horses have been taken out of the showpiece event, including Al Ferof, First Lieutenant and the 2014 Gold Cup hero Lord Windermere, but all the big guns in the betting stood their ground.