Faugheen Returns with Much to Prove in Irish Champion Hurdle

It has been a quiet few weeks on the political front. As has been the custom for the past 18 months or so, there has been very little movement with the Brexit negotiations, and even the almost immediate need to thrash out some kind of trade deal with the EU, China or anybody else for that matter is being treated like a piece of coursework by an apathetic undergraduate: ‘I don’t need to worry about that until the last possible minute’.

And then the World Economic Forum met in Switzerland, where attendees were expected to take Donald Trump to task for some of his more garish actions as US president. Instead, they lapped up his ‘America First’ with almost insatiable gusto. It was disturbing to see, to be honest.

So let’s brush all of that under the carpet for now, and instead focus our attentions on a fine day of racing on Saturday from Leopardstown. This is the Irish Champion Hurdle meeting, with the title race being the undoubted headline act. Along with the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, this outing offers a fantastic insight into the two-milers creeping into form in time for the Cheltenham Festival: Hardy Eustace, Hurricane Fly and Faugheen have all won this race and the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in the past decade or so.

The latter is the favourite to claim a second Irish Champion Hurdle crown, although the ten-year-old will need to convince punters that his awful run on this very track in the Ryanair Hurdle in December was a rare anomaly from one of the most coveted horses in modern racing.

If the betting crowd remains unconvinced, then there could well be money to be made in this Group 1 extravaganza. Here’s your guide to the racecard, with the runners taking their starter’s orders at 3:30pm on Saturday:

Faugheen (11/8)

It is hard to know exactly why Faugheen struggled so badly last time out. This is a horse that had only failed to win once in a 14-race career, so for a mediocre run to be brought to a dramatically early end alarm bells are naturally ringing.

“It was head-scratching what happened at Christmas and frustrating. I just hope it doesn’t happen again,” were the less-than-reassuring words of trainer Willie Mullins. “Once he came back in with no physical evidence of any legs problems I was relieved. Well then it might be wind, lungs, heart or a muscle problem, but we haven’t seen any evidence of that.

“He’s had an ECG scan done and had his wind checked. Something must have choked him on the day or something like that.”

So even Faugheen’s camp don’t quite know what went wrong here last time out, and that is a concern. But those who enjoy a flutter will want to read about the ten-year-old’s staggering CV: he has won this race and the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, as well as one of the ‘big ones’ at Cheltenham and the Christmas Hurdle.

He and the magnificent Hurricane Fly have won this race for Mullins’ yard on six of the last seven renewals, and so if Faugheen’s early bath in December is enough to put you off, perhaps I can direct you towards another couple of fancies from the Irishman’s yard….

Melon (11/4)/Bapaume (25/1)

Melon is a young horse in age (just six years old) and experience, and he is yet to savour the delights of winning a Group 1 encounter.

He bested Ryanair Hurdle winner Mick Jazz back in November, but was defeated in December’s Unibet International Hurdle by the classy pair of My Tent Or Yours and The New One.

There are plenty of unknowns about Melon, and in a race of this stature punters are advised to tread very carefully.

Bapaume is highly regarded by Mullins and his team, and while his credentials are not mind-blowing by any means there is clearly plenty of potential for improvement.

There hasn’t been a five-year-old winner of this race in 25 years, and Bapaume, with one win in his last five starts, doesn’t appear to be ready to end that trend. There are impressive wins on his resumé, including his maiden Group 1 victory in the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle, but there has been nothing in high quality company to get the juices flowing.

Defi Du Seuil (6/1)

Here’s a horse like Faugheen that, until recently, was considered an outstanding performer. But a poor seasonal return has cast some doubt on his credentials.

Phillip Hobbs’ charge was well beaten in the Coral Hurdle in November, which brought to an end an eight-race winning streak.

The five-year-old has enjoyed plenty of Grade 1 success, albeit in limited company, and if we can accept a poor run from a young horse making its first outing in seven months, then an each way flutter on Defi Du Seuil should give a good run for your money.

But Faugheen is the key here: if he turns up in better form than last time out he should romp home in fine style.