Luck runs out for Faugheen as Yorkhill enters Champion Hurdle calculations

2015 Champion Hurdle winner will miss next month’s festival with a stress fracture

Faugheen ‘The Machine’ has been ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: Reuters/Eddie Keogh

The precariously fragile nature of the thoroughbred can rarely have been better illustrated than by how both Faugheen and Min were ruled out of next month’s Cheltenham festival.

On Monday afternoon, quotes appeared from Ruby Walsh via his column for Racing UK about Faugheen being on course for the festival, and how the horse required "the bit of luck he needs and deserves."

Within an hour had come confirmation that such luck had deserted the 2015 Champion Hurdle winner.

A muscle problem that ruled Faugheen out of his intended comeback at Leopardstown just over a week ago was instead established to be a stress fracture.


To compound the news, another Rich Ricci owned star, Min, was also ruled out of his festival target in the Arkle Trophy and although their trainer said he hoped both will be able to run later in the season, cruel timing has ruled them out of the meeting that matters most.

"We had hoped Faugheen had just tweaked a muscle but we've had it checked out and it's a stress fracture," confirmed Willie Mullins. "It's a real shame with Faugheen. We needed everything to go right and obviously it hasn't."

It was the latest in a series of reverses this season for the champion trainer that began with Michael O’Leary’s decision in September to take away 60 horses in a dispute over training fees.

At least Faugheen lives to fight another day, unlike Vautour who lost his life in a freak accident last autumn.

But with Annie Power also ruled out of Cheltenham a couple of weeks ago due to a setback, and Gordon Elliott challenging his supremacy as champion trainer, it has been an unusually trying winter for Mullins.

It certainly made Walsh’s earlier upbeat bulletin on hurdling’s highest rated star seem bittersweet indeed.

”He (Faugheen) did a serious piece the Tuesday before Leopardstown and David Casey was delighted with him. At some stage you have to turn the screw, but the ability is still there,” the champion jockey said reassuringly to fans who hadn’t seen the horse in action in over a year.

The reality for the all-conquering Mullins-Walsh team now is that after dominating the Champion Hurdle betting for much of the season they currently look to be scrambling for contenders.

In fact it is Petit Mouchoir, one of the 60 Gigginstown horses taken away by O’Leary, who is among the leading contenders as some firms make Buveur D’Air, who had been novice chasing earlier this season, the new 3-1 favourite.

Considering that prior to Faugheen’s defection, Yorkhill had been as low as 7-2 for the Champion Hurdle despite not even being entered for the race after two runs over fences this winter, other firms made him their new favourite on the basis he can be supplemented.

Mullins himself had said a couple of weeks ago he felt Yorkhill would have no problem going back to hurdles at some stage although he had said on Monday: “At the moment Yorkhill goes to straight to Cheltenham over fences.”

That “at the moment” qualification could yet prove timely given how with just over four weeks to Cheltenham every moment is potentially fraught for the leading festival contenders.

One bookmaker spokesman caught the mood when he said: "Even by Cheltenham standards it feels like more leading contenders then ever have been falling by the wayside, with Faugheen and Min joining the likes of Annie Power, Coneygree and Don Cossack on the sidelines.

”Some of the championship races are starting to look a bit light in terms of competitiveness which is a shame.”

Prior to all that Mullins has Grade 1 ambitions at Leopardstown this Sunday and he indicated the 9-2  RSA favourite Bellshill will line up in the Flogas Novice Chase. Bellshill, also owned by Wylie, is favourite for the RSA after two impressive victories over fences this season, the last of them at Limerick over Christmas.

Saturnas is a likely starter for Mullins in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle while Bapaume is likely to line up in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle.

Another Mullins trained option for the Champion Hurdle may be Footpad, runner up to Petit Mouchoir at Leopardstown just over a week ago, and who will be kept for Cheltenham after being taken out of this Saturday’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury.

”He is entered in the Stayers Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle and it is not set in stone which race he will go for yet,” a spokesman for owners, Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, confirmed.

Instead Footpad’s stable companion, the topweight Renetti, is the sole Irish trained entry among 20 still left in the big Newbury handicap.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column