Donn's Articles » Faugheen returns

Faugheen returns

It is difficult to believe that we have not seen Faugheen race since January 2016.

Willie Mullins’ horse won the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle that day, 24th January 2016.  He danced in, he quickened clear for Ruby Walsh, easily, he beat his stable companion Arctic Fire by 15 lengths, with his other stable companion Nichols Canyon another 13 lengths back in third.

It was an incendiary performance by the Germany gelding.  Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon were both rated in the 160s, and he beat them pointless.  Timeform rated the performance the best of Faugheen’s glittering career, better than his Champion Hurdle win, better than either of his Christmas Hurdle wins, and better by far.  His defeat at the hands of Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana Hurdle two months earlier consigned to the annals, we bunkered down and prepared for Cheltenham.  We expected fireworks. 

Alas, before racing at Punchestown three weeks later, Willie Mullins announced that Faugheen had suffered a suspensory ligament injury, that he would not run again that season.  He would miss Cheltenham, he would miss Punchestown.  It was a devastating blow.  Even Annie Power’s easy victory on her seasonal debut later that afternoon could only cushion the blow a little.

There have been false dawns since.  A bruised foot ruled him out of a return to action on this day last year in the Morgiana Hurdle.  Then he was all set to return in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown last January when another setback ruled him out.  At the time, it was hoped that it was just a pulled muscle, that he would still be able to get back in time for Cheltenham, but it was later revealed to be a stress fracture, and Willie Mullins had to draw stumps on the season.

It has been a frustrating time for connections, for trainer Willie Mullins and owners Rich and Susannah Ricci.  To have a horse as talented as Faugheen is, and to have to refrain from unleashing that talent.  To have to sit and watch as Cheltenham comes and goes, then to sit and watch as Cheltenham comes and goes again, although the frustration was probably eased a little in 2016 when they won the Champion Hurdle anyway with Annie Power. 

Adding to the frustration was the fact that they were only little setbacks that were keeping Faugheen off the track.  Poorly-timed ailments.  If you had known in January 2016 that he was not going to race again until today, you could have budgeted accordingly, managed your expectations.  Several times in the interim a return has been planned, only for the plan to be scuppered.  You could understand it if connections have been holding their collective breath since Monday.

“He’s in great order,” Ruby Walsh told Racing UK on Tuesday.  “His homework has been good, he has a lot of work under his belt.  We’re happy with him.  It’s a long time since he has run, but John Codd who rides him and looks after him at home is very happy with him.  Fingers crossed.”

At Leopardstown on the day that Faugheen last ran, Douvan won the Grade 1 novices’ chase and A Toi Phil won the Grade 2 novices’ hurdle. That’s how long ago January 2016 is.  Douvan has since won an Arkle, a Maghull Chase, a Ryanair Novice Chase, a Hilly Way Chase, a Paddy Power Chase and a Tied Cottage Chase, while A Toi Phil is now an experienced steeplechaser, a Leopardstown Handicap Chase winner, a dual Grade 2 winner over fences, having run 16 times since.  It is difficult to imagine what an injury-free Faugheen could have achieved in that period.

“I’d hope that he retains all of his ability,” said Ruby, “but you never know until you go to the track. He’s the one that I’ve been looking forward to though, he’s a very exciting horse, and I’d be hoping that on Sunday he can get his career back on track.” 

It’s desperate for Walsh that he cannot ride today. A broken leg sustained in a fall at Punchestown yesterday means that he will be on the sidelines for a little while. It will be tough viewing for Faugheen’s rider this afternoon, but you know that he will be willing the horse and Paul Townend on.

It will be a real test for Faugheen today too.  Jezki is a top class performer.  The 2014 Champion Hurdle winner, Jessica Harrington’s horse bounced back to form last time in putting up an impressive performance to land the Grade 3 Istabraq Hurdle at Tipperary.

Campeador, owned, like Jezki, by JP McManus, is the improver.  A faller at the final flight when in contention in the Fred Winter Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016, a faller again at the final flight when almost certain to win a big handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse last December, the Gordon Elliott-trained gelding was impressive in winning on his debut this season at Punchestown last month. He has light years to travel in order to get to Faugheen’s level, but he is on the ascent.

Add Vroum Vroum Mag and Swamp Fox to the line-up, and you have a contest that is deserving of its Grade 1 billing. 

But Faugheen is top of the bill.  Faugheen is box office.  He has run 14 times, and he has won 13 times. One point-to-point, one bumper and 11 hurdle races, including a Champion Hurdle, a Neptune Hurdle, an Irish Champion Hurdle, two Christmas Hurdles, a Punchestown Champion Hurdle and an Ascot Hurdle. 

He could add a Morgiana Hurdle today.  It’s great to have him back.

© The Sunday Times, 19th November 2017