e should be beyond the point at which a horse, unseen this season, could be given serious consideration as a contender for a championship race at Cheltenham, but Champion Hurdle favourite Faugheen is trained by Willie Mullins, who shifts the goalposts on a regular basis.
Reasonable to point out that some of Mullins’ most remarkable achievements in relation to Cheltenham Festival winners off a rushed prep or long break have been with mares – think Quevega, year after year, and Annie Power in 2016.
The latter is, perhaps, the most relevant comparison to what Mullins will try to achieve with Faugheen, having won last season’s Champion Hurdle with just one run under her belt. But it would be a brave man who would suggest the Closutton trainer could not repeat the feat with a gelding. There are differences, of course, and bringing a horse back from a long injury lay-off to win at any level is difficult, let alone in a championship race.
Last season, Faugheen prepped for the Champion Hurdle with a surprise defeat in the Morgiana, followed by authoritative victories in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and the Irish Champion Hurdle. At that point, a second success in the race looked a formality, but injury intervened, and he hasn’t been seen since.
In the intervening period, however, nothing has stamped its authority on the division and, fortunately, given there are less than eight weeks to go, he may not have to be at his very best to regain his crown.
Annie Power proved an able deputy in 2016, despite her own less-than-ideal preparation, but the bare form leaves her upwards of 10lbs shy of what Faugheen achieved.
And what else has emerged? Yanworth is currently second-favourite and, despite Grade 1-winning ability, his hurdling technique leaves plenty to be desired. When clean, he can be high and slow, and when he’s struggling, as he was last time, he forfeits plenty of ground.
His round of jumping in the Christmas Hurdle would never be good enough to win a Champion Hurdle, and if he is to make the step up, the jumping must match the engine.
Petit Mouchoir looked good beating Nichols Canyon at Leopardstown, but the runner-up jumped out to his right in what looked a below-par effort. The winner will likely improve, but we may soon learn of his ability, as a date with Faugheen, in the Irish Champion Hurdle, remains a possibility.
Brain Power looks a talent, but didn’t cut the mustard in Grade 1 novice company last season, and is emerging through the handicap route this year, while Superb Story looks shy of top class, and The New One has consistently fallen short at this level and should do so once more.
It won’t be ideal, should Faugheen miss the Irish Champion Hurdle, on Sunday-week, but neither will it make the task impossible.
History tells us regaining the Champion Hurdle crown is a rarity, but Mullins has achieved it – with Hurricane Fly. In addition three-time winner, See You Then, was notoriously difficult to train, to the extent his trainer, Nicky Henderson, joked that he was known as See You When, rather than See You Then.
It’s a touch of class and the ability to produce a big performance on the day which wins the Champion Hurdle and, on both scores, Faugheen fits the bill. Right now, there isn’t a better man in the business than Mullins to produce a horse to peak on a day, regardless of the prep.
Backing the horse ante-post, at 9-4, is only for those sure he will turn up on the day. Taking 5-4 non-runner no bet, offers a little insurance. Both odds will likely shorten should he be declared for the Irish Champion Hurdle.
In the absence of a rival proven at the level and until such time, should it come, that he is ruled out of the race, Faugheen remains the most likely winner of the 2017 Champion Hurdle.
n a few weeks’ time the 9/4 currently available on Faugheen winning the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival could look extremely generous odds. If he proves his fitness sufficiently to return to combat in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown at the end of this month and if he shows his 12-month absence has not dulled his brilliance then he will surely be odds-on for the day one feature at Prestbury Park.
However, both are big ifs. Faugheen has not been seen since his imperious display in last year’s Irish Champion Hurdle and that has to be a concern. A suspensory ligament injury suffered last February denied Faugheen the chance to defend the crown he had won so impressively at Cheltenham 11 months previously. At the time Willie Mullins was bullish about the horse’s long-term future, predicting he would return as “as good as new” next season.
However, next season has now become this season and Faugheen is yet to be cited on a racecourse. A stone bruise ruled him out of the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November. He was then entered in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse but missed that engagement too with Patrick Mullins, the trainer’s assistant and son, saying: “I Imagine we’ll be aiming at Christmas with him. We’ll just wait until he’s really sparkling again.”
Clearly, he didn’t sparkle to Willie Mullins’ satisfaction as Christmas came and went without the festive treat of Faugheen’s return. This week the trainer said Faugheen is “definitely on course for Cheltenham” and expressed the hope he’d make it to the Irish Champion Hurdle before that. However, the fact so many planned returns this season have been aborted can only be a negative.
Some bookmakers have now gone non-runner no bet on the Champion Hurdle but while that means punters will get their money back if Faugheen fails to make it to the Cotswolds, it also means he can be backed at no bigger than 5/4 with those firms.
Given the length of time he has been off, that price has no appeal, particularly given there’s no guarantee post-injury Faugheen will be the same horse as a pre-injury Faugheen.
Admittedly, Mullins was in a similar position before last year’s Champion Hurdle. Annie Power only made her seasonal reappearance on the same February day that Faugheen was ruled out of the festival and she arrived at Cheltenham on the back of that one run – a modest contest at Punchestown. But she came up trumps on the day, proving herself a more than able super-sub for her stablemate.
Like Faugheen, she hasn’t been seen this season and while it would be brilliant to see her and Faugheen do battle come March, the chances look slim, given both are under the ownership of Rich Ricci.
Indeed, there is a growing sense that the only way she’ll be defending her title is if Faugheen doesn’t make it to Cheltenham. But even if Annie Power misses out, the suspicion is this year’s Champion Hurdle field is stronger than the 2015 renewal.
Yanworth is the main British contender. He was beaten into second by Yorkhill in the Neptune at last year’s festival but that is his only reversal from his last seven starts. His jumping doesn’t entirely convince but Alan King’s charge does possess a serious engine and having just turned seven, you sense there’s more to come.
Petit Mouchoir has a similarly progressive profile. The Henry De Bromhead-trained six-year-old would probably have won the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle had he not fallen three out but he made no mistake last time out, hammering Nichols Canyon by seven lengths in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas.
The Champion Hurdle picture could look very different by the end of the month but, as things stand, Yanworth at 5/1 and Petit Mouchoir at 8/1 look far more appealing betting propositions than Faugheen.