Donn's Articles » Faugheen


The general reaction was one of shock, disappointment, when the news filtered through early on Wednesday afternoon that Faugheen would miss the Champion Hurdle.  The news overshadowed even the return of Annie Power, who was just on her way down to the start before the first race at Punchestown.  (Her return was flawless, by the way, an easy six-and-a-half-length win for the 1/20 favourite.)

Ruby Walsh couldn’t hide his disappointment when he returned to the winner’s enclosure.  Happy with Annie Power’s return, gutted about Faugheen.  Like someone whipping the Ace out of the pack, he told us, and handing you back the rest of the cards.

It is disappointing for everyone.  You want to see the best compete in the best competitions.  That’s what sport is about.  You want to see Barcelona play in the Champions’ League; you want to see Djokovic play at Wimbledon; you want to see McIlroy play at Augusta.  You want to see Faugheen race at Cheltenham.

Faugheen was on the brink.  One more Champion Hurdle and he was level with Hurricane Fly and Hardy Eustace and Sea Pigeon and Monksfield, and one behind Istabraq and Persian War.  That’s the pool in which Faugheen swims.

And as disappointing as it is for fans of the sport, think of the punch in the solar plexus that it is for connections.  Even so, Willie Mullins was circumspect.  He spoke about how fortunate they are, that they still have Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon for the Champion Hurdle as well as, even without Faugheen, a formidable Cheltenham team.  And there is the intriguing prospect of Annie Power now being supplemented to the Champion Hurdle.

It was classic Mullins, steady head, refuse to wallow, accentuate the positive.

And it is not all negative.  Faugheen’s injury is not career-threatening, it is just badly-timed, four weeks before his championship final.  It is a suspensory injury, similar to the injury that kept Hurricane Fly out of the 2010 Cheltenham Festival, and that was before the Montjeu gelding won his two Champion Hurdles, not after. Faugheen is older now than Hurricane Fly was then, he will be nine next year but, such is his talent, so superior is he to his peers at present that, all going well, there could still be another Champion Hurdle or two in him.

Faugheen’s defection means that the Irish challenge at Cheltenham has been weakened.  It’s like travelling without your anchorman, going to Twickenham without Sexton.  That said, it is still a strong challenge, it is as strong as it ever has been.  The quality of National Hunt horses that race in Ireland these days has never been higher.

That point was hammered home this week when the latest entries for the six non-novice Grade 1 races at Cheltenham were published.  Of the 162 entries left in the six races, 77 are trained in Ireland.

Of the 13 remaining entries in the Champion Hurdle, just four are Irish-trained, but three of them – Arctic Fire, Nichols Canyon and Identity Thief – occupy the top three positions in the market.  And if Annie Power were to be supplemented to the race, that would be the top four.

Unlike the Champion Hurdle, which has been won by an Irish-trained horse for the last three years, and for four of the last five, there has been just one Irish-trained winner of the Gold Cup in the last decade.  That record could be improved upon this year, however, with 13 of the 21 entries trained in Ireland.

And like the Champion Hurdle, Irish-trained horses occupy the top three positions in the market in most ante post lists with Don Cossack, Vautour and Djakadam, and the top four in some, with Don Poli a shorter price than Cue Card with several firms.

Interestingly, an Irish-trained horse has won the Gold Cup in 1986 (Dawn Run), 1996 (Imperial Call) and 2006 (War Of Attrition), and in only two other years in the last 38.  Or at least it’s interesting if you are into that type of thing.

There are 16 entries in the Champion Chase at this stage, and 10 of them are trained in Ireland, headed by the odds-on favourite Un De Sceaux.  There are 40 entries in the Ryanair Chase and 22 of them are trained in Ireland.  The ante post market is subject to change, with several horses having Gold Cup or Champion Chase options but, as things stand, five of the top six in the betting for the Ryanair Chase are trained in Ireland.

There are 34 entries in the World Hurdle, and only 14 of them are trained in Ireland, but they include second, third and fourth favourites Annie Power, Alpha Des Obeaux and Vroum Vroum Mag, even though the two mares now have potential alternative engagements.  And there are 37 entries in the Mares’ Hurdle, with 16 of them trained in Ireland, including the two afore-mentioned mares, at least one of whom will surely take her chance.  Whichever one does will be sent off as warm favourite.

Some of the handicaps might be difficult for the Irish but, as things stand, of the 14 Grade 1 races at Cheltenham, an Irish-trained horse is favourite for nine of them and, even without Faugheen, that is a barometer of the quality of National Hunt racing in Ireland these days.


© The Sunday Times, 21st February 2016