Faugheen set for triumphant return to action at Leopardstown

Willie Mullins sends Un De Sceaux and Vroum Vroum Mag into action in Britain

Ruby Walsh with Faugheen. The 2015 Champion Hurdler remains the benchmark. Even short of his peak this exceptional performer can continue to be so. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Ruby Walsh with Faugheen. The 2015 Champion Hurdler remains the benchmark. Even short of his peak this exceptional performer can continue to be so. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

 

With 45 days to Cheltenham, and in the middle of an unfamiliarly turbulent season, it must be reassuring for Willie Mullins to call on the best horse in the country for a Grade One highlight he has farmed like few others.

Faugheen hasn’t raced since officially putting in the performance of an already lustrous career in the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle a year ago.

It was rated superior to anything achieved prior to that by his former stable companion Hurricane Fly during an unparalleled five-in-a-row which has earned “The Fly” a new statue at Leopardstown as further evidence of how Mullins has dominated Ireland’s most prestigious hurdle race.  

While expecting Faugheen to come back from a year off at a similarly lofty peak is in all probability too big an ask, right now his presence alone, and in this particular race, is surely of no little significance to the champion trainer.

It’s ridiculous to try and paint a fraught portrait of someone who has netted over €2.6 million in prizemoney in Ireland alone this season and whose big race reach – with Un De Sceaux lining up as a Grade One favourite at Cheltenham’s Festival Trials Day and Vroum Vroum Mag in action at Doncaster an hour later – remains unmatched.

However jump racing’s most powerful figure has also had to pick a path through a campaign which has contained reverses on a scale he hasn’t had to contend with before.

From Vautour’s fateful accident to the injury earlier this week that could rule Annie Power out of the rest of the campaign, and even the late “bang on the knee” that has ruled Min out of his own Grade One target his Sunday, it is not just Faugheen who has tested Mullins’s patience.  

Then there’s Gordon Elliott’s lead in the trainer’s championship which remains stubbornly consistent and the continuing reverberations from his split with Michael O’Leary which has already meant the galling task of having to watch four stars he used to train landing Grade Ones this term.

Most attention

Sure enough he follows up Thursday’s Gowran four-timer with a handful of runners in Naas and a trio of cross-channel starters on Saturday before ten hopefuls line up at Leopardstown.

Faugheen’s return to action will be the focus of most attention. Of the handful of Rich Ricci-owned stalwarts Mullins began the season with, only Douvan’s campaign has so far been progressing without incident although Faugheen’s official 176 rating still trumps the brilliant young chaser.

It is the same mark achieved by the legendary Istabraq at his peak and even off a year’s absence it testifies to the task Faugheen’s former stable companion Petit Mouchoir faces in Sunday’s feature.

That he is one of Gigginstown’s Grade One winners which used be trained by Mullins adds another layer of expectation to the €110,000 highlight.

But impressive as he was at Christmas, Petit Mouchoir is still rated a stone inferior to his rival and beating a possibly below par Nichols Canyon so readily last month may have flattered him.

Just as it’s reasonable to expect Faugheen to improve for his comeback, it’s a fact that the 2015 Champion Hurdler remains the benchmark. Even short of his peak this exceptional performer can continue to be so.

Min mightn’t be lining up in the Frank Ward Arkle but Mullins still has two of the four runners and with question-marks hanging over Identity Thief after being pulled up over Christmas, Bleu Et Rouge could emerge best of this ‘Two V Two’ battle with Henry De Bromhead.

His jumping will have to improve considerably from his Christmas victory but that Bleu Et Rouge won at all in the circumstances illustrated considerable ability.

Pay dividends

MelonLet’s Dance’

The decision to skip Sunday’s feature can pay dividends for Ivan Grozny at Naas where David and Danny Mullins are pencilled in to split some enviable material supplied by their uncle between them.

Haymount in particular should thrive for a step up to three miles in the other Grade Three while Patrick Mullins can score against his father on Drumconnor Lad in the bumper.

On a weekend which could see Gordon Elliott’s near €270,000 lead over Mullins for the trainer’s title contract significantly, there’s still no doubt racing’s financial imperative lies in Miami when the world’s richest race, the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup, takes place at Gulfstream Park.

The world’s two top rated flat horses, Arrogate and California Chrome, will renew their Breeders Cup Classic rivalry in a race due off at 10.40 on Saturday night, Irish time.

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