Ruby Walsh expected to partner Faugheen in Irish Champion hurdle

Two more of Willie Mullins’ top trio Nichols Canyon and Artic Fire also in the frame

Fresh from his spectacular recovery on Killultagh Vic on Sunday, Ruby Walsh can anticipate returning to Leopardstown with a rare pick of top-flight talent to choose from in the €110,000 BHP Irish Champion Hurdle.

Walsh, who is on the verge of a double-figure haul of Grade One prizes already this season, is expected to maintain his partnership with Faugheen in what will be very much a Willie Mullins show. The country's dominant trainer pitches his three top hurdlers into Ireland's most prestigious prize over flights with Nichols Canyon and Arctic Fire joining Faugheen.

As anticipated just two other entries remain in the race after the five-day forfeit stage and both Plinth and King Of The Picts are substantially inferior to their rivals on official ratings.

Champion jockey Walsh bids for a record-equalling sixth win in a race he won for the last four years on Hurricane Fly, and in 2009 on Brave Inca. Charlie Swan still holds the record on his own – for now.


Never beaten

Nichols Canyon remains the only horse ever to beat Faugheen after a memorable Morgiana shock in November, and followed that up with a Ryanair success over Christmas at Leopardstown.

In contrast, Faugheen has never appeared at the track over which his former stable companion Hurricane Fly was famously never beaten in ten starts. He has since bounced back to winning form in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle and remains a heavy odds-on favourite for this Sunday’s feature.

Walsh feels that trip to Kempton could be an advantage to Faugheen given the very testing conditions both Nichols Canyon and Arctic Fire recently ran on at Leopardstown.

“Faugheen gave me a great feel at Kempton and one advantage he had over Christmas was the ground at Kempton was beautiful: whereas at Leopardstown, by the time the other two ran, they were racing in the middle of the course, which is the flat track that had been watered all summer, and it had gone very testing. So they had to work considerably harder than Faugheen did,” he said.

“Faugheen probably didn’t do anything he shouldn’t have done at Kempton in terms of form while Nichols Canyon battled gamely to beat Identity Thief who’d obviously improved. They were both very good performances, albeit in different styles,” Walsh added.

Nichols Canyon is officially third best of the Mullins team on official ratings, 6lbs behind Arctic Fire who failed to shine when tried over three miles at Christmas, and a full stone behind Faugheen. But the jockey isn’t underestimating the six-time Grade One winner.

Slick jumper

“He’s a very slick jumper, probably a slicker jumper than Faugheen. He’s also done a lot of racing on the flat so he’s battle-hardened and I don’t believe we’ve got to the bottom of him yet,” he said.

Ascot's Clarence House Chase, which has both Un De Sceaux and Felix Yonger as entries, could provide Walsh with a 10th Grade One success of an already vintage top-flight winter which began with Thousand Stars' Grand Prix d'Automne success in early November.

Bookmakers reckon Douvan, who tops a five-strong Mullins entry for Sunday’s Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle, will be the hottest favourite of all this weekend. Ttebbob and Velvet Maker could take on Douvan again after they were well beaten over Christmas.

Ground conditions at Leopardstown are currently “soft” and soft to heavy in places. The meeting also includes the Grade Two Lacy & Partners Novice Hurdle. Half of the 14 entries are owned by Gigginstown Stud, including the highly-rated pair of Disko and Petit Mouchoir.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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