Faugheen may be the headline act for Sunday’s BHP Irish Champion Hurdle but he and his Willie Mullins-trained stable companions face a mammoth task in following in the indelible hoof-prints of Hurricane Fly.
Mullins’s now retired superstar secured a matchless five-in-a-row in Ireland’s most prestigious hurdles prize with a hugely emotional success in 2015. It brought Hurricane Fly’s Leopardstown career to a perfect 10 out of 10 finale, trumped Istabraq’s four-in-a-row in the race, and cemented the horse’s place in the affections of the Irish racing public.
It is Faugheen who has taken over “The Fly’s” place at the top of hurdling’s rankings and he is an overwhelming odds-on favourite to win Sunday’s €110,000 feature even if likely to again clash with the only horse ever to beat him.
Although the race appears likely to turn into a near-private battle between Willie Mullins’s top-three hurdlers – Faugheen, Nichols Canyon and Arctic Fire – they are the top three in the betting for Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle in March and it is the likelihood of a rematch between Faugheen and Nichols Canyon in particular which will attract most interest.
Although Faugheen bounced back from his shock Morgiana defeat to win impressively at Kempton over Christmas, he still has half a length to find on his stable companion from Punchestown who followed up with his own festive victory at Leopardstown.
And if Faugheen is flash, it is the dogged Nichols Canyon who drew comparisons to Hurricane Fly from his trainer after a Ryanair defeat of Identity Thief with Mullins likening the six-time Grade One winner’s looks, jumping, ability and battling qualities to “The Fly”.
There are similarities too in how public appreciation of Nichols Canyon mirrors how it took many some time to fully warm to the old star.
“Last season he won four Grade One’s and normally any novice doing that would be a star but he went slightly under the radar,” Mullins considered.
“We rode him wrong at Cheltenham, he fell one day at Leopardstown, and he was second to other horses of ours in the betting sometimes. So people were thinking ‘he’s lucky – he’s lucky’ but at the end of the year he’d won four. You get lucky one day but not all the others.
“A lot of people – including ourselves – probably didn’t realise how good he was until after Punchestown last season. He’s a horse who’s not going to win races running away. But he’s a galloper and never gives up,” the champion trainer added.
With Identity Thief unlikely to feature, the weekend highlight is set to be dominated by Mullins’s representatives and Ruby Walsh, hoping to emulate Charlie Swan’s six wins in the race, is expected to keep his partnership with Faugheen.
“There hasn’t been a bother on Faugheen since Kempton,” confirmed Mullins while Arctic Fire will also try to go one better than his second to Hurricane Fly in the 2015 renewal.
Before that, Mullins's Queen Mother Champion Chase favourite Un De Sceaux could attempt to return to winning form at Ascot after being one of seven entries left in the Clarence House Chase.
Un De Sceaux fell on his first start of the season at Leopardstown and could appear next at Ascot or wait a week for Punchestown’s Tied Cottage Chase.
Significantly, Mullins has also left in the Graham Wylie owned Grade One winner Felix Yonger in the Ascot contest which is likely to see the former two-mile champion, Sire De Grugy, line up for Gary Moore.
The top Irish trainer has indicted Vroum Vroum Mag could line up in a Grade Two hurdle at Ascot on Saturday and said: “She’s entered in the World Hurdle and the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at the Festival and Saturday will help us decide which route to take.”