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Faugheen returns

Faugheen returns today.  He makes his seasonal debut in the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.  Faugheen has never been beaten, and odds of 1/6 tell you that he will probably win today too.

The son of Germany has raced 11 times, once in a point-to-point, once in a bumper and nine times over hurdles.  He has raced twice over three miles, once over two and three-quarter miles, three times over two and a half miles and five times over two miles.  He has raced once on heavy ground, once on soft ground, four times on yielding ground, three times on good to yielding ground and twice on good ground.  He has never lost.  He is as versatile as he is talented.  It is not just because he rhymes with machine that they call him such.

Faugheen’s return is the latest event in the slow release of the Willie Mullins power-surge into the season.  From early, the perennial champion trainer had told us that, because of the good autumn weather and the fast ground, his top horses were a little behind, that he hadn’t been able to get the work or the schooling into them that he needed to get into them before they made their seasonal returns.

The early season throes went on around Mullins a little.  In Britain, Cue Card won the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby, Gold Cup hero Coneygree won at Sandown, Saphir Du Rheu won at Carlisle, Simonsig and Bobs Worth returned at Aintree.  In Ireland, Road To Riches won the Clonmel Oil Chase and Don Cossack won the Irish Daily Star Chase, then followed up by landing the Champion Chase, while the prospective top novices made their chasing debuts: No More Heroes won, Sizing John won, Kitten Rock won.

The Mullins wick burned slowly.  Bachasson and Long Dog continued their runs from the summer into the autumn and Arctic Fire won the Lismullen Hurdle at Navan last Sunday.  Even so, when the Gordon Elliott-trained Jetstream Jack won the opening maiden hurdle at Clonmel on Thursday, and his stable companion Prince Of Scars followed up in the three-mile handicap hurdle, Elliott briefly overtook Mullins at the top of the 2015/16 trainers’ championship.  Then the Mullins-trained Vroum Vroum Mag won the Grade 3 mares’ chase an hour later, and all was right in the world again.

The degree to which Mullins dominates National Hunt racing these days is unprecedented.  He has been champion trainer in Ireland every year since he first usurped Noel Meade in 2008.  For the last four seasons, he has earned more prize money than the total combined prize money earned by the trainers who finished second, third and fourth in the championship behind him.

And it is not just in Ireland that he is dominant.  The Cheltenham Festival is usually an accurate barometer of the state of things in National Hunt racing, and Mullins has been leading trainer there four times in the last five years.  At the 2015 Festival, he sent out eight winners, more winners than any other trainer had had at a Cheltenham Festival ever.  So there are more races these days at Cheltenham than used to be the case, but eight winners out of 27 races is a strike rate of almost 30% at the most important festival of them all.

Mullins has raised the bar and Irish trainers have responded.  Never before has the standard of Irish National Hunt racing been as high as it is now.  We go to Cheltenham these days expecting the number of Irish-trained winners to reach double figures, and thinking that there is a chance that there will be more Irish winners than British.  We have come a long way since the late 1980s, when Galmoy flew the flag alone.

And so it continues.  Of the 18 races at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival on which there are ante post markets at present, 12 of the favourites are trained by Willie Mullins.  Two-thirds.

These are exciting times at Closutton.  Douvan, last season’s top two-mile novice hurdler, is set to embark on a chasing career.  Vautour, dynamite in the JLT Chase at Cheltenham, is set to step out of novice grade and up in trip, with the King George VI Chase at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day his first major target.  After that, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is on his radar.

Don Poli, impressive winner of the RSA Chase in March, one of last season’s top staying novice chasers, is another Gold Cup aspirant, 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam will be bidding to go one better, and there is lots of talk of 2013 Gold Cup runner-up Sir Des Champs’ return.  Bellshill, winner of the Grade 1 Champion Bumper at Punchestown in April, makes his debut over hurdles at Cork this afternoon, while Annie Power will be back for more, and the seasonal debut of Un De Sceaux, just about the fastest novice that you saw jump a fence last season, 13 career wins and one fall from 14 runs, is penciled in for the Hilly Way Chase at Cork early next month.

It all continues with the return of the Champion Hurdler today in a race in which the recently retired Hurricane Fly has been dominant for the last three years.  Faugheen still has a long way to go if he is to match his erstwhile stable companion’s achievements, but we still don’t know how good Faugheen is.  Because he has never been beaten, we still don’t know the limits of his capabilities.  And in the unlikely event that he gets beaten today, it will probably be one of his stable companions who beats him.  There’s the strength in-depth of the Willie Mullins team again right there.

© The Sunday Times, 15th November 2015