Familiar face Petit Mouchoir a big obstacle for Faugheen

Return of one of Willie Mulins's star horses makes for intriguing Irish Champion Hurdle

Faugheen followed  Hurricane Fly’s five-in-a-row with victory last year to extend Willie Mullins domination of BHP Irish Champion Hurdle. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Faugheen followed Hurricane Fly’s five-in-a-row with victory last year to extend Willie Mullins domination of BHP Irish Champion Hurdle. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

For once Willie Mullins won’t have his rival Gordon Elliott to contend with in Sunday’s BHP Irish Champion Hurdle but it looks instead like Michael O’Leary’s Petit Mouchoir will be the biggest obstacle to a seventh win in a row for Mullins in Leopardstown’s €110,000 Grade One feature.

Faugheen’s long-awaited return to action is unquestionably this weekend’s headline act although September’s split between the champion trainer and O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud ensures big-race action which won’t want for rivalry.

Petit Mouchoir was down the pecking order compared to some of his illustrious former stable companions when trained by Mullins last season.

However the grey was moved by O’Leary to Henry De Bromhead and looked a transformed proposition with a Christmas Grade One rout over the same course and distance of Sunday’s contest.

That Ryanair Hurdle was one of a series of Grade One reverses endured by Mullins at the hands of Gigginstown horses he used to train during December. The champion trainer has a stranglehold on this Sunday’s feature like no other though.

Hurricane Fly’s five-in-a-row was followed last year by Faugheen’s spectacular victory which earned him a career high rating of 176, superior to any rating achieved by Hurricane Fly even in his pomp.

Shortly afterwards a suspensory ligament problem put Faugheen on the sidelines and he hasn’t been since although that didn’t stop bookmakers making him 4-7 to make a successful return to action with Petit Mouchoir on 11-8.

Just four other horses remain in the race with Ivanovich Gorbatov the only other not trained by Mullins who also has five of the eight entries left in Sunday’s other Grade One, the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase.

Main opposition

Mullins confirmed Min on course for Sunday’s race and added: “I think Bleu Et Rouge will probably run too and maybe others. We had a very dry autumn and horses didn’t race so they need experience.

“Min is a horse that can be hard on himself at home so I don’t set him stern tasks at home. We leave that for the racecourse.”

If the principal players for the Grade One action are familiar, what will be unfamiliar on Sunday are ground conditions so unseasonably quick for January that Leopardstown’s chief executive has moved to reassure all that they will be completely safe.

“The ground is good at the moment and there is a very good covering of grass. The track is in great condition and perfectly safe,” said Pat Keogh. “It’s been very dry for the time of year and there’s no rain in the forecast for the weekend.”

The RSA favourite Bellshill is one of 15 entries left in Saturday’s Grade Three Woodlands Park Novice Chase at Naas where one of Mullins’s Irish Champion Hurdle entries, Ivan Grozny, also holds an entry for the Grade Three Limestone Lad Hurdle.

Mullins has three runners for Wednesday’s Fairyhouse card and perhaps the most intriguing of them is the French recruit Tin Soldier in a three-mile maiden hurdle.

This one failed to win in 14 starts in France – the last 10 of which were admittedly at Auteuil – and hardly boasts the progressive profile of a typical Mullins recruit.

The champion trainer has a record of transforming these French horses however and significantly he should have a line to one of the main dangers, the 127 rated Call The Taxie, who was runner-up to Penhill at Limerick over Christmas. It’s hard to argue with Grade Two form in the book however.

Call Vinnie’s previous chasing experience can give him the edge over Clontarf in the novice event while Paper Lantern, who had a busy holiday period over Christmas, may get his head in front in the handicap chase.

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