LEOPARDSTOWN MAY SINK FAUGHEEN'S CHAMPION HURDLE REPEAT
Three weeks after the most devastating performance of his career, Faugheen was ruled out of the 2016 Champion Hurdle. Fifteen lengths Willie Mullins’s charge would beat his stablemate Arctic Fire in the 2016 Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, seemingly setting himself up perfectly for a defence of his Champion Hurdle crown at Cheltenham.
On the 17th of February however, Mullins would rule out the Rich Ricci-owned gelding with a suspensory ligament problem. When the story broke, connections reported the injury “isn't a serious problem”, but nearly a year on we haven’t seen one of National Hunt’s brightest stars.
Mullins said the setback “was just bad timing” given the 2016 Cheltenham Festival was on the horizon and quickly scoffed the gravity of the problem. The same timing line was used when Faugheen missed his 2016/17 return, in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November, a stone bruise ruling him out.
A return was then touted in this season’s Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, a race the son of Germany had won the two previous runnings of, but again, Ricci’s charge failed to make final declarations.
The BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle on January 29th now looks like where Faugheen could make his belated return to the track. Speaking to the Irish Times recently, Mullins said: “I’m pleased with him and he’s definitely on course for Cheltenham. If all goes well, hopefully he can run in the Irish Champion beforehand.”
It remains to be seen whether the 2015 Champion Hurdler runs at Leopardstown and despite the initial prognosis of his injury seemingly being positive, I do wonder are we entering a lose-lose scenario for Faugheen should he run on the 29th.
The vibes from Closutton all season have been negative about the eight-times Grade 1 winner, both Willie and Patrick (assistant trainer) Mullins publicly stating they haven’t seen any “sparkle” from their inmate. This obviously isn’t a positive, but could it just be a product of Faugheen being stuck in a routine, a routine he’s become accustomed to over the last four/five years.
Now nine-years-old, the stimulus of the racetrack may well be needed to spark him back to form, but connections are obviously not happy with what they are seeing at home. As good as Faugheen was, and maybe still is, we must remind ourselves horses aren’t machines and the type of injury suffered by Faugheen has led to many a horse being retired.
Add further, his sheer size and presence, this is the type of setback that could easily flare up again. Hopefully it doesn’t, we want these stars on the track, but we are entering a critically important time in the career of Faugheen.
Thoroughbreds are built for running at fast speeds, but four skinny legs carrying a half-tonne animal – and in Faugheen’s case more - means there is a design flaw and horses are prone to injury.
Should he make it to Leopardstown and run up to par – which would almost certainly see him win, is there a chance he may ‘bounce’ in the Champion Hurdle itself, the most important and sought-after race Rich Ricci, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh want to win with their charge? Is there a chance, in the most serious piece of exercise his body has faced since his injury, it could flare up again?
I’m reminded of another superstar who had a similar leg problem not too long ago, Big Buck’s. After an unconvincing spell over fences, once the Paul Nicholls horse reverted to hurdles, he remained unbeaten in 18 starts – 10 of those Grade 1s - before injury interrupted.
After a 14-month absence – a similar timeframe facing Faugheen – he returned and was twice beaten, sadly, he wasn’t the same horse. Faugheen is a year younger than Big Buck’s faced with a similar dilemma and that is a significant positive.
It’s going to take a great training performance from team Mullins to get Faugheen back winning Grade 1 races. Maybe the stone bruise suffered in November and him failing to sparkle will turn out to be a blessing in disguise, giving him more time? Only time will tell.
While the Irish Champion Hurdle is a great race in its own right, Cheltenham in March is the Holy Grail. Given the injury suffered, setbacks in training and the warmer days of spring ahead, maybe Faugheen is best off going straight to Cheltenham to recapture his Champion Hurdle crown. It certainly didn’t harm Quevega in five of her six wins at the Festival.
Relive Faugheen's brilliant win in the 2016 Irish Champion Hurdle