Faugheen and Annie Power still to hit top form - Mullins
Although both Annie Power and Faugheen feature among the 10 entries announced yesterday for the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday, January 29, neither is certain to run.
Petit Mouchoir slammed that duo's stablemate Nichols Canyon - which is also entered for January 29 - at Leopardstown over Christmas. The progressive grey will be expected to take the beating if neither Annie Power nor Faugheen makes a long-awaited seasonal debut.
The last two winners of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham have not run in this campaign and, while racing fans will be encouraged that they are Leopardstown possibles, Patrick Mullins has stressed that there is no guarantee that either will partake.
His father Willie has also entered Clondaw Warrior, Footpad, Diakali and Ivan Grozny as he bids to win the Irish Champion Hurdle for the seventh year running.
"Faugheen and Annie Power are both riding away and are of similar fitness," Mullins Jnr told the Irish Independent.
"Hopefully Faugheen can start to sparkle in his work and we can get him back to the track. Neither he nor Annie has sparked and Dad is taking a patient approach.
"We'd have liked to have Faugheen out earlier but we've not been happy with the way he has sparked: he hasn't in the way we'd have liked. It's nothing serious and he's riding away but we're very much erring on the side of caution, with March the main aim.
"He had a bit of a suspensory ligament last year, which is quite a common injury. He seems fine from that.
"Annie Power only had one run before Cheltenham last year. If we're not 100pc happy at the end of the month with either, we will wait some more."
The pair, despite obvious concerns, continue to dominate the betting for the Stan James Champion Hurdle and the all-powerful nature of the Festival in terms of the jumps season was underlined yesterday, with record prize-money announced for 2017.
An increase of £190,000 was revealed, to take total prizes to £4,305,000 for the four-day meet, though the Champion Hurdle is one of five races which will be left alone.
The Racing Post Arkle's purse is boosted by £25,000 to £175,000, with the same applying to the RSA Chase. A total of 18 races have received a cash injection of £5,000.
Another top-notch Closutton-trained two-mile hurdler, Arctic Fire, is back in his work, while Douvan came out of his Leopardstown romp in stupendous form, Patrick Mullins said.
"He only ran two weeks after his comeback at Cork and it was a little bit of a worry - that's quicker than we usually would run one back - but he came out of Leopardstown absolutely bucking and kicking," he said.
"His work rider, Holly Conte, was holding tight to the neck-strap! My father has never won the Champion Chase and to win it would be special."
Brilliant mare Vroum Vroum Mag is not entered for the Leopardstown heat and Mullins says her Cheltenham plans will be dictated by where Faugheen and Annie Power go.
Both Faugheen and Annie Power are quite lightly raced for nine-year-old horses. The mare has had 17 runs, winning 15; Faugheen has seen the track 13 times, only once beaten.
Meanwhile, former Ryanair Chase winner Dynaste, BetBright Chase winner Rocky Creek and 2015 Grand National second Saint Are feature among 19 declarations for the 32Red Veterans' Handicap Chase final at Sandown tomorrow.
Elsewhere, Ertijaal produced a blistering performance to win the Longines Master Collection Handicap on the opening night of the Dubai World Cup Carnival at Meydan and give Jim Crowley his biggest winner since joining forces with Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum.
Having been touched off in the Group One Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night, the Ali Al Rayhi-trained six-year-old showed he was more than capable of giving weight away to his rivals in a devastating display of speed under the champion jockey.
Fast out the stalls, the 8/11 favourite, who was formerly trained in England by William Haggas, quickly adopted a position at the head of the field he was to maintain all the way to the line in the five-furlong dash to claim a length and three-quarter success.