Donn's Articles » Faugheen


Humble beginnings.  There were over 12,000 foals born in Ireland in 2008, and there was nothing special about the one that was born in Tuam on 2nd May, a little colt by Germany out of a mare named Miss Pickering, who had never raced herself.

The Faugheen story had an unremarkable beginning.  Things were tough.  The recession was raging in Ireland and demand for potential racehorses – the ultimate luxury item – had tumbled, but supply hadn’t corrected itself by then.  Corrections take time, an ocean liner cannot stop on a sixpence.  Thoroughbred foal production was at its zenith, and the difference between supply and demand could hardly have been greater.

Breeders struggled.  Miss Pickering’s owner Dr John Waldron struggled.  The recession had hit him, as it had hit just about everybody else and, just to confound matters, his marriage had broken up.  He had sold all his other broodmares, but he decided that he would hold onto Miss Pickering.

“He was a gorgeous-looking foal,” recalls Dr Waldron.  “I had bred the mare myself, and she was throwing gorgeous stock.  And he was by Germany, one of the best stallions ever to stand west of the Shannon, so I thought that the foal had a chance.”

The foal grew and matured, and that November, his breeder took him to the Tattersalls Ireland foal sale at Ratoath.  He could have held onto him, kept him for the Derby Sale or the Land Rover Sale as a three-year-old or a four-year-old, but he thought it best to sell then.

“I wanted to sell him as a foal,” says the breeder.  “He was such a good-looking foal, I thought that he would do fine at the sale.  And I knew that I would have his brothers and sisters from the mare, so I just wanted to get a horse out there. ”

It is easy to look back now with the benefit of the 20-20 vision that is hindsight, and say that €4,000 was a measly sum to get for a future champion.  However, this was recession-ravaged Ireland with demand on the floor and most breeders just happy to get their stock away.  Waldron was happy with the sum that he received, happy to get his foal sold.

The Faugheen story took a tragic twist then.  The foal was bought by Tipperary man Peter Quinlan.  Peter saw what Dr Waldron now talks about, the foal’s good looks, his potential as a racehorse.  Tragically, Peter never got to see that potential fulfilled.  Just over a year after he bought the foal, in January 2009, Peter went out to feed Faugheen and was killed in a farm accident.

Peter’s father Tom sold Faugheen as a three-year-old at the Goffs Land Rover Sale in June 2011.  Andy and Willie Slattery of Meadowview Stables also saw Faugheen’s potential, and theirs was the €12,000 bid that secured the horse when the gavel fell.  Again, not expensive.  See ‘hindsight’ above.

Faugheen made his debut as a racehorse in a point-to-point at Ballysteen in April 2012.  Prepared for the four-year-olds’ maiden by Andy Slattery, and with Roger Quinlan on board, he hit the front at the third last fence and came clear to win easily.

After that, interest piqued.  Faugheen was bought privately by Willie Mullins for Rich and Susannah Ricci, the fee is a private matter between buyer and seller, but it is safe to assume that it was a multiple of the €12,000 for which the Slatterys bought him at the Land Rover Sale.  And whatever it was, it was probably still value.

We know the rest.  That point-to-point was the only race that Faugheen has contested in which he was not sent off as favourite.  He has run in 12 races since, and he has been favourite for every one of them, odds-on for 10 of them.

Just over a year after his sole point-to-point, and racing in Susannah Ricci’s colours, Faugheen won his bumper by 22 lengths, beating Josses Hill into second place.  It isn’t certain when the ‘machine’ reference began – as in, ‘Faugheen the’ – but it was probably around about then, early in his career.  Irish racing fans are like that.

Six months after his bumper, the son of Germany won his maiden hurdle over two miles and six furlongs, then he won a novice hurdle over two and a half miles, then a Grade 3 hurdle at Limerick on heavy ground over three.  A stayer, we thought.  The Albert Bartlett Hurdle at Cheltenham was the race for him as a novice, and he was a staying chaser in-waiting.

But Willie Mullins knew better.

Faugheeen danced in in the Neptune Hurdle over an extended two and a half miles at the Cheltenham Festival that year, 2014, then went to Punchestown six weeks later, dropped down in trip and won the Grade 1 Champion Novice Hurdle over two miles doing handsprings.

That was the day that Faugheen showed his pace, and it was probably that performance at Punchestown, more than any other, that convinced his trainer that he should be trained the following year as a potential Champion Hurdle horse, not as a potential Gold Cup horse for the future.

“I always thought that he would be a better chaser than hurdler,” ventures Dr Waldron.  “He never really had any respect for hurdles.  They weren’t even slowing him up.  His grandam was a chaser.  I would have loved to have seen him jump a fence, but I don’t suppose we will get to see that now.”

When you are almost unbeatable in one sphere, why change that sphere?  Why open up a well-oiled machine to put oil in it?

Faugheen was unbeatable last season.  He raced four times and he won four times.  Ascot, Kempton, Cheltenham, Punchestown, rat-tat-tat-tat, adding a Christmas Hurdle and a Champion Hurdle and a Punchestown Champion Hurdle to his burgeoning CV.

He suffered his first defeat ever on his debut this season, going down by a half a length to his stable companion Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November.  But he put that blip behind him with another scintillating display at Kempton last month, after which his owner said that he was 15 kilos lighter at Kempton than he had been at Punchestown.

This afternoon, Faugheen is set to run in the BHP Insurances Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.  He has never raced at Leopardstown before, and he faces two worthy adversaries in his stable companions Arctic Fire and the afore-mentioned Nichols Canyon, the only horse to ever beat him.

Even so, Faugheen is favourite again, Faugheen is odds-on again.

The story continues.

© The Sunday Times, 24th January 2016