After a stuttering start to the season, in which he lost his unbeaten record, Faugheen is firmly back on track to defend his Champion Hurdle crown at Cheltenham.
A smooth success in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton restored some confidence but, at a well-attended Leopardstown yesterday afternoon, trainer Willie Mullins admitted the gelding “just blew away any doubts we had” with a scintillating display in the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle.
Prohibitively short in the betting to account for stable companions Nichols Canyon and Arctic Fire and two rank outsiders, he was immediately sent to the front by Ruby Walsh.
But, when Paul Townend sent Nichols Canyon upsides racing down the backstraight, a terrific race ensued. The two raced side by side until Faugheen outjumped his rival at the second-last, and that was the last time he saw another rival. When Walsh asked the favourite to put the race to bed, he quickened away in devastating fashion.
A sloppy jump at the last never threatened to derail the leader, who strode up to the line 15 lengths clear of Arctic Fire, with Nichols Canyon fading away to be a similar distance back in third.
“He’s special, an incredibly talented horse, and it’s great to have him,” said Walsh. “I’d say that was the best he ever was. People were saying ‘he’s getting it too easy, take him on’ but why would you take on a three-miler? He has the pace to win over two and the stamina to win over three. It was just an amazing performance.”
Mullins agreed. “It was an electrifying performance. I couldn’t ask for any more,” he admitted. “I don’t think I’ve seen him jump as well, he fluffed the last, that’s all. But, he has a huge cruising speed and when he had to jump alongside Nichols Canyon he jumped far better than he had done in his life. And they appeared to go a hell of a gallop.
“It was a taking performance because the two horses (Faugheen and Nichols Canyon) left themselves wide-open. After the second-last hurdle, coming around the last bend, Danny (Mullins) still hadn’t gone for Arctic Fire, and I was wondering had they taken too much out of each other.
“But Faugheen just opened up again. He put in a Champion Hurdle round of jumping, and at the pace they went it was a proper Irish Champion Hurdle.”
Of the frame-fillers behind the vastly superior winner, Mullins added: “Arctic Fire left his bad run at Christmas behind him, and probably ran up to last year’s form, but Nichols Canyon may have been feeling the effects of his last race. I was expecting a little more from him, so we’ll have to freshen him up for Cheltenham.”
On yet another remarkable day for the stable, Walsh reflected on what it is to be part of the Closutton yard.
“It’s an incredible outfit, and a great place to work,” said the ten-time Irish champion jockey. “There’s an unbelievable team of staff, and it’s a great place to go into work. There’s a great atmosphere and a lot of skilled people. With Willie captaining the ship, it’s brilliant.
“I’m Irish, and you’re always going to be patriotic, but to be doing it here and able to go and show England what we can do is special.”
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