Mullins hopes Faugheen can return to action in Irish Champion Hurdle
Trainer says enigmatic Yorkhill’s next start will be at a “shorter trip over fences”
Faugheen was pulled up by Paul Townend after failing to fire during the Ryanair Hurdle at the Christimas Festival in Leopardstown. Photograph: PA/Wire
Willie Mullins doesn’t believe Faugheen was ‘got at’ before his shock Leopardstown defeat during Christmas and the horse could make a dramatic return to action at the Dublin track in less than four weeks’ time.
Faugheen was pulled up in sensational circumstances before the second-last flight as a 2-11 favourite for the Ryanair Hurdle on the final day of the Christmas festival, even provoking speculation the former ‘Horse of the Year’ may have been doped.
Mullins is still awaiting one final test result from a battery of tests subsequently carried out on Faugheen who had been defeated just once before during a glittering career. However he said on Monday he doesn’t believe anything sinister occurred with his superstar performer.
“I didn’t think there was something suspicious: I didn’t at the time and I still don’t,” he said. “I’ve read all that stuff and you have to keep an open mind on it. But I’m happy there’s something there we haven’t put our finger on. He was gone going to the second hurdle that day. There was something up on the day that upset him,” the champion trainer added.
In that past Mullins has highlighted the potential threat racing faces from doping.
Prior to the 2014 Cheltenham festival he outlined how he urges his staff to be vigilant in relation to sedatives in particular. Those comments were made in the context of a number of controversies involving anabolic steroids at that time.
On the back of Faugheen being pulled up, and the Gold Cup winner Sizing John failing to fire in the Leopardstown Chase the day before, the Turf Club moved to outline security measures taken at Leopardstown and stressed they believe neither horse was interfered with on race-day.
Faugheen pleased his connections in a canter on Monday morning, after which he was examined by Mullins’s vet. It has encouraged Mullins to think the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle on Day One of the new ‘Dublin Racing Festival’ could be a pre-Cheltenham target for the horse.
“It wasn’t there before but it’s come back on the radar with what I’ve seen this morning. I was very taken with the canter and our vet checked him over immediately afterwards and said he was fine. During the week it looks like I’ll be able to put him back into full work,” he said.
Such a move could help revitalise the Champion Hurdle betting for Cheltenham in March. A race that had been billed as a mouth-watering clash between the reigning title holder, Buveur D’air, and the 2015 champion, Faugheen, looked unlikely just last week.
Faugheen was pushed out to 6-1 for Cheltenham after his Leopardstown flop with his English rival now a general 4-6 favourite.
Faugheen put up his highest-rated performance when winning the Irish Champion Hurdle two years ago. However injury prevented him running again until his spectacular return to action in the Morgiana Hurdle in November.
That Punchestown rout only added to the deep sense of shock generated in his subsequent start in the Ryanair which ultimately was won by the Gordon Elliott -trained Mick Jazz.
Mullins also said on Monday that he will keep Yorkhill entered in the Champion Hurdle but indicated the enigmatic star’s next start will be at a “shorter trip over fences”.
A Gold Cup campaign has been ruled out for Yorkhill after he finished out of the money behind Road To Respect in the Leopardstown Chase over three miles. Instead he will be entered up at the Cheltenham festival in both the Champion Chase, the Ryanair Chase, and the Champion Hurdle.
“I’ve no doubt he would stay [three miles] if he had a better temperament. He’s bred to stay. But at the moment we’re looking at shorter trips for him. I think his next run will be at a shorter trip over fences,” Mullins said.
No precise race or date has been pencilled in for Yorkhill’s next start although plans are complicated by the horse’s history of jumping to his left. That could make a two mile option such as next month’s Tied Cottage Chase at right-handed Punchestown less than straightforward.
However Mullins argued: “I don’t think he has to go left-handed. He’d be a lot easier to ride left-handed but if we’re stuck for opportunities we’ll have to go right-handed. Over a shorter trip, going faster, he may not have a problem.”
Yorkhill is currently as short as 7-2 second-favourite with some firms for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham behind Altior.
Mullins also indicated Vroum Vroum Mag is likely to try and go one better than last year in the OLBG Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham. The prolific mare has yet to run this season but is being targeted at Cheltenham.
However her stable companion, Limini, a place behind Vroum Vroum Mag when they finished behind Apple’s Jade at the festival last season, won’t make it to Cheltenham this time.
“It’s a constant battle to keep Limini right and if she runs over hurdles this season it will be at Punchestown. She won’t make Cheltenham. And I’m quite keen to run her on the flat,” he said.