There will be no more popular winner at this year’s Cheltenham Festival than Faugheen if he can strike gold in the Cotswolds for the third time in Thursday’s Marsh Novices’ Chase.
It is six years since the Willie Mullins-trained superstar delighted favourite-backers in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle – and 12 months later he led home a one-two-three for Ireland’s champion trainer in the Champion Hurdle.
There have been a few bumps in the road during the intervening period. In fact, it looked as though a glorious career may have come to an end after he was pulled up with a heart problem at Aintree last spring.
But Mullins’ decision to not only bring his 12-year-old back this season, but also send him over fences, has proved an inspired one, with Faugheen rolling back the years with a hat-trick of wins, including an emotional success at Leopardstown last month.
Connections have unsurprisingly taken their time in deciding whether a return to Prestbury Park was the right thing to do at this late stage of Faugheen’s career, but Mullins can see no reason not to let him take his chance.
He said: “He has been in great form since Christmas, doing everything right.
“He has earned his ticket back to the Festival winning two Grade One races along the way in his last two runs.
“He has been training well and has done everything we have asked of him at home, so we have declared him and hopefully he will run well again.”
Mullins also saddles Melon, Bapaume and Tornado Flyer in a race he has already won on a record four occasions, with Sir Des Champs (2012), Vautour (2015), Black Hercules (2016) and Yorkhill (2017) all striking gold.
Melon is out to make it fourth time lucky at the Festival, having previously finished second in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and in the last two runnings of the Champion Hurdle.
“He’s shown us that he needs two and a half miles. He has good Festival form and if he has a clear round of jumping, I think he’ll go close,” Mullins added.
The home team is headed by Olly Murphy’s Itchy Feet, who has impressed in winning each of his two starts over fences, including the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown last month.
Murphy said: “I have been delighted with Itchy Feet’s preparation. The ground won’t be a problem for him if it comes up soft and I think he has been slightly overlooked after his Sandown win.
“I am not really sure why as the manner of his win was impressive; despite making a mistake at the second-last, he ran on strongly.
“It is very exciting to have my first Grade One winner being a live player for a Grade One at the Festival.
“I really think this race will suit and, while there are some interesting horses in there, I wouldn’t swap our lad.”
The Colin Tizzard-trained Reserve Tank won Grade One novice hurdles at Aintree and Punchestown last spring, but has so far not managed to translate that level of form to the larger obstacles.
The six-year-old did win the Rising Stars Novices’ Chase at Wincanton on his penultimate start, but was a beaten odds-on favourite in another Grade Two at Newbury in late November and has not been seen in competitive action since.
Joe Tizzard, assistant to his father, said: “He is just a difficult horse through the winter and he wants spring ground. This run might come soon enough for him and we would have loved to have got a prep run into him, but the ground was wrong.
“He is a dual Grade One winner at Aintree and Punchestown and he is a very good horse on his day.”
Other contenders include Nicky Henderson’s Mister Fisher and the mercurial Samcro from Gordon Elliott’s yard.
The latter undergone a wind operation since being put in his place by Faugheen at Limerick over the Christmas period and bids for a second Festival win following his triumph in the 2018 Ballymore.