‘As soon as he took off my jaw was on the floor’

There are plenty still holding out hope that Faugheen will reproduce his machine days once more in today’s Champion Hurdle, despite his most recent lacklustre efforts at Leopardstown.

Connections are hoping that Faugheen can recapture his glory days in this afternoon's Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

It is easy to forget now that he initially seemed bound for staying chases, as a winner of his 4yo maiden over three miles under Roger Quinlan at Ballysteen almost six years ago.

Certainly, nobody looking on was thinking Champion Hurdle when Rich Ricci’s son of Germany bagged a Grade Three hurdle on bottomless ground over three miles at Limerick in Christmas 2013.

Emmet Mullins was on board that day, and he felt the searing pace and power that would eventually place the gelding on a coveted role of honour alongside the likes of Istabraq, Dawn Run, Monksfield, Sea Pigeon, See You Then, and Hurricane Fly.

“We bounced out and made all” Mullins recalls now. “He was kind of a free-going type. His jumping hadn’t been great, even with Ruby (Walsh) in his maiden hurdle over 2-6 at Punchestown. It was just about getting him from A to B really.

"I remember I went down and waited on him at the second last and let him pop it. I thought at the back of it I was after slowing down too much.

I sat down once at the back of the saddle and gave him a kick and he just took off down to the last as if we were jumping off at the start of the race and I had to slow him down again for it. There’s no horse has given me a feel like that, before or after. As soon as he took off between the last two flights, my jaw was on the floor at what he was doing.

“He shouldn’t have been able to. It was bottomless and he went over the last and he could have done another lap, after three miles already.”

For a while, it looked like Mullins’ career would follow a similar trajectory.

He won the Martin Pipe Conditionals Jockeys’ Hurdle in 2011 on future Gold Cup runner-up Sir Des Champs, not long after turning 21.

“It was a great day. He was one of the best backed Irish horses on the day I think. Everyone had been talking about him all week so it was a great relief. There was no pressure on me from anyone else, it was just nervous excitement beforehand from myself more than anything.

The ground wasn’t ideal and it was only his third ever run over hurdles, in a handicap at the Cheltenham Festival.

“He was run off his feet early, he didn’t know what was going on really and it just took him a long time to get into the race. Sure he was a Gold Cup horse in the end!”

The opportunities did not come as readily as he would have liked however and he had no interest in just getting by.

“There just weren’t the rides there and I didn’t want to do half the job. There was more opportunities coming up travelling with Willie’s horses and I did a lot of that, going to Japan with Blackstairmountain, and Melbourne, Hong Kong, the Japan Cup and Dubai with Simenon. I got a lot of experience doing that and once I came home from that, I decided to go training.”

He saddled a winner with his first ever runner, just a week after taking out his licence, when St Stephens Green triumphed in Kilbeggan bumper in June 2015, under the guidance of his first cousin Patrick.

He trains in a yard owned by his father George in Closutton — just across the road from his Uncle Willie’s.

Having those facilities at his doorstep is an obvious advantage.

St Stephens Green claimed a valuable handicap hurdle in Killarney last May and looked like being Mullins’ first runner at Cheltenham this week but the heavy rain put paid to that.

He’s in great form. He’ll go to Fairyhouse for the 100 grand pot at the festival there and if that doesn’t work out ground-wise we’ll just wait again. It’ll be a long summer.

“We try to win with any horse we run and hopefully they’re sold after that. Luckily the Mees bought St Stephens Green and were good enough to leave him with me. That’s been a big help. As well as that, a long-term friend of my Dad’s, Bertie Cunningham bought a nice older horse for me to train, Red Devil Lads and he won a 50 grand pot as well.

“So that’s two 50 grand handicaps won in the year which is not bad.”

He won’t make the trip to Prestbury Park this year, having promised himself that he would only return when he had a vested interest again.

As for his old friend, he is hopeful rather than optimistic that Faugheen can regain his Champion Hurdle crown.

“It was very disappointing the last two days but I’ve no doubt what I saw of him in the Morgiana in Punchestown in November, that wasn’t too far off the Faugheen of old. He’s going the right way, but to get back to where he was, he’s an awful way off it as it stands.”

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