On a card that offers little cause for optimism at Cheltenham this afternoon, Faugheen is fancied to turn back the clock and land the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle. A year ago, he contested the Champion Hurdle and performed so badly as to raise major concerns about his future.
Starting the 4-1 second favourite, behind eventual winner, Buveur D’Air, he produced a lifeless display to trail in a well-beaten sixth of nine finishers. On the back of that effort, it was difficult to envisage Faugheen ever playing a leading role again, at least at the top level, and it would have been no great surprise had his retirement been announced.
But, undaunted, Willie Mullins dusted him down and then stepped his charge up to three miles at the subsequent Punchestown festival in late April. In what shaped as a hot renewal, the winner of the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham a couple of weeks earlier, Penhill, was the 2-1 market leader, Faugheen was simply a revelation.
Partnered by David Mullins, the veteran was bounced away in front and never saw another rival. We waited for him to cut out, and then waited some more, but it was never going to happen. Faugheen maintained a relentless gallop and surged on approaching the final flight to beat Penhill by 13 lengths.
It was immediately clear that the winner of the 2015 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham now needed to go out a long way in distance to remain competitive. That sort of thinking was very much emphasised when Faugheen made his seasonal debut, over the minimum trip, in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November. A 2-5 shot, he was again desperately disappointing. Partnered by Ruby Walsh, Faugheen proved woefully one-paced and was no match in the straight for stable companion, Sharjah, and was beaten seven and a half lengths into second.
That seemed to offer confirmation he was indeed a light of other days, but Mullins decided asking him to try three miles for a third time was the way to proceed. It is well to remember that in 2013, as a relatively immature five-year-old, he won a three-mile Grade 3 hurdle at Limerick. And so Faugheen contested a three-mile Grade 1 at Leopardstown at Christmas, throwing down the gauntlet to Apple’s Jade.
The previous 5 winners of the race have run to an average rating of 178, with ANNIE POWER acheiving the highest rating of those in 2016.— Timeform (@Timeform) March 12, 2019
(2018) Buveur d'Air - 177
(2017) Buveur d'Air - 177
(2016) Annie Power - 180
(2015) Faugheen - 178
(2014) Jezki - 178pic.twitter.com/vZo9poZD1S
Attempting to match strides with that mare is a huge ask, but Faugheen was within two lengths of her, and clear of the rest, when falling at the second last.
We have no idea what would have happened had he remained on his feet, but it was still an encouraging effort, to go with what was achieved at Punchestown at the back-end of last season. This does not look a high-class renewal and the obvious worry is the progressive Emma Lavelle-trained Paisley Park. He has gone from strength to strength this campaign and is unbeaten in all four of his races. Paisley Park won at Aintree, Haydock and Ascot, prior to his latest success over three miles at Cheltenham towards the end of January.
He slammed Colin Tizzard’s West Approach to the tune of 12 lengths and gave him 6lbs to boot. It was that dominant performance which saw him catapulted to clear favouritism for the third day feature. It is a measure of how far Paisley Park has apparently come, considering his final outing last season saw him only manage a poor 13th here a year ago behind Kilbricken Storm in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. In any case, Faugheen, the oldest horse in the race at 11 , could well have the legs on his four years younger opponent.
The only other race on the card that makes any appeal, from a betting point of view, is the Ryanair Chase and Mullins has a strong hand with Footpad and another 11-year-old, Un De Sceaux. You underestimate Un De Sceaux at your peril and the more rain that falls the better will be his prospects. Preference, however, is for Footpad, even though he has more than his fair share of questions to answer. As a novice last season, the seven-year-old had the world at his feet, so impressive was he, producing a number of excellent efforts.
He looked a natural from day one and went to the Arkle at Cheltenham as the banker of the meeting for the Irish. Rather surprisingly, though, he made a dreadful error at the sixth and that should really have put paid to his chances. But he soon cruised back into contention and Ruby Walsh was basically able to sit motionless in the straight, as Footpad strolled to victory by 14 lengths.
He then came home to the Punchestown festival, scored by 12 lengths, and there was every reason to believe would develop into a serious Champion Chase candidate. But he ran a shocker on his return at Naas in November, struggling badly when falling at the last, before being run down late by Simply Ned at Leopardstown at Christmas. Footpad has been given lots of time to return to his best and there are positive reports regarding both his homework and schooling of late.
The hat-trick seeking Pravalaguna will go off at big odds in the JLT Novices’ Chase and might give us a decent spin in a tricky race.