'Electric' Faugheen sparkles as Mullins enjoys four-timer
Faugheen ultimately quashed any notion of a meaningful rematch with Nichols Canyon by exacting revenge with devastating ease to stretch Willie Mullins's unbeaten run in the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle to six.
Having been sent off at odds of 3/10, the market clearly expected the reigning champion hurdler to prevail.
However, Nichols Canyon had humbled him in the Morgiana Hurdle, and there was an expectation that, with fellow stable-mate Arctic Fire also in the field, the €110,000 Grade One would at least constitute a race of meaningful proportions.
Douvan, by contrast, was always going to win the card's other Grade One, the Arkle Novices' Chase, barring a calamity. That is duly what transpired, but few would have predicted the beating that Faugheen inflicted on his smart rivals under Ruby Walsh. At Punchestown, Nichols Canyon had the benefit of the lead.
Walsh set out to dictate matters here, though Paul Townend sat on his tail from the off aboard Nichols Canyon. The intention was clearly to keep Faugheen honest and put his jumping under some pressure.
When the two began to draw clear together from three-out, the Leopardstown crowd collectively drew breath in anticipation of the dust-up that looked about to unfold. Then Faugheen pinged the second-last, and all of a sudden Nichols Canyon was treading water.
Turns out the prospect of a duel was a grand delusion. There was to be no phoney war, as Faugheen picked up where Hurricane Fly left off on his debut at the track to plunder his seventh Grade One, despite barrelling his way through the final flight.
Nichols Canyon's hard-earned triumph at the track at Christmas may have left a mark, but the manner in which his conqueror sustained the ferocious pace on heavy ground and then quickened 15 lengths clear at the line was simply awe-inspiring. Arctic Fire crossed the line in second ahead of a spent Nichols Canyon, and it might well be that the unforgiving fractions also played a role in the third's demise. The time of the race was 11 seconds quicker than the earlier maiden hurdle, which is pretty significant.
"It was an electrifying performance and I don't think he has ever jumped so well," Mullins said of the display, which saw Faugheen shortened to as low as 1/4 to retain his crown in March.
"He was hugely accurate, and I don't think you could ask for any more. Nichols Canyon might have been feeling the effects of his last race, but Arctic Fire ran to the level that he did in the race last year, and it was great to see him leave behind his poor run here at Christmas. The way that Faugheen and Nichols Canyon went at it, they left themselves open to taking too much out of each other, so it was a proper Irish Champion Hurdle.
"We'll get them all home and see how they are, but my thinking at the moment is that they will all be aimed at the Champion Hurdle. I'm certainly not ready at this stage to divert Nichols Canyon to the World Hurdle."
Walsh, who was joining Charlie Swan as the most successful rider in the history of the two-miler with a sixth win, was equally effusive. "He was good, wasn't he?" he declared.
"We went at it from the word go and there has been a school of thought that he doesn't like being taken on, but you can see now that even when he is, he can still do it. He is some horse."
Douvan was sent off at odds of 1/14 for the earlier Frank Ward Solicitors-sponsored event and duly made light work of two inferior rivals. He did no more than he was entitled to in also dotting up by 15 lengths, but you still couldn't but be impressed by the way in which he goes about his business.
"He could be anything," a visibly enthused Mullins admitted of Rich Ricci's exciting six-year-old.
"I don't know how good he is, but he is like a different species to anything he works with at home. He is a horse that could even go back over hurdles and be a Champion Hurdle horse.
"I was very, very impressed with the way that he jumped into the bridle after the last and quickened away. He is so quick in the air and almost hurdles his fences - for a big horse he is in no way gangly or awkward."
The champion signed off with a four-timer that yielded cumulative odds of just over 4/1. A Toi Phil justified 6/4 favouritism and bumper debutant Village Mystic (4/7), under son Patrick, book-ended his quartet in the Gigginstown House Stud silks.
A Toi Phil's victory was the stable's fifth in a row in the Grade Two Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novices' Hurdle. The six-year-old readily saw off the renewed challenge of the pace-setting Acapella Bourgeois to draw seven lengths clear, in the process setting up the prospect of a €25,000 bonus for Mullins's stable staff should he follow up at Cheltenham in March.
"He will go for either the Neptune or the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle," Mullins indicated of Bryan Cooper's mount. A Toi Phil was trimmed for both races but can still be backed at double-figure odds.
The winner's form had been franked when the JP McManus-owned Don't Touch It produced a flawless showing to slam Mullins's Beau Mome by 13 lengths in the maiden hurdle.
"This is a horse with gears," Jessica Harrington said of her 8/11 favourite. "We think he might be very good."
Paul Nolan's horses have been enjoying a resurgence of late. The Wexford handler departed the venue with a winner for a second successive Sunday when the similarly in-form Jonathan Moore drove The Mooch to victory in the handicap chase.
It was a brave turn from the front-runner, as he had to dig deep to battle back after being headed.
The Mooch returned odds of 16/1, and there was further respite for the bookmakers in the longer handicap chase. Bearly Legal, an easy-to-back 10/1 shot, kept on well for Donagh Meyler to fend off the persistent challenge of Kayf Supreme by four lengths.
That was a seventh win from just 31 domestic runners this term for young local handler Karl Thornton.