Faugheen, Min miss Festival in latest major blow
A trying season for Willie Mullins worsened yesterday when he ruled Champion Hurdle favourite Faugheen and last year's Supreme runner-up Min out of the Cheltenham Festival.
"We'd hoped Faugheen had just tweaked a muscle; we've had it checked out and it's a stress fracture," he said.
"Min has a bruise. Hopefully both will still make the track this season."
What a difference a season makes. As Cheltenham 2016 neared, Mullins was inundated with visitors to his barn just off the M9.
He was extremely courteous and it was hard not to draw a conclusion: he was in a really good place as to the health of his horses.
A gentleman, Mullins is conscious of the value of hospitality, yet it was as if he were keen to pass on some karma, since everything was going so well.
He managed to get virtually all his main players there last March, with the exception of Faugheen. Annie Power slotted in as his replacement, Vroum Vroum Mag as hers in the Mares' Hurdle. The master of Closutton sent out 61 runners and came away with seven winners.
This season never felt the same and he has been hit by a staggering number of setbacks. He lost 60 horses owned by Gigginstown in late September, Vautour died in a freak accident in November and there was still no sign of Faugheen or Annie Power.
Journalists sensed his reticence when discussing stable stars, so much so that they were averse to ask out of respect. Mullins has never been rude, but generally one got the feeling that he'd prefer to discuss something else.
If he had a negative inkling for some time about Annie Power and Faugheen, that has been borne out.
The news that the progressive Min - an easy winner at Leopardstown at Christmas - won't be on the ticket must be really tough for him to take.
That Punchestown has not been ruled out for either may yet save his trainers' title challenge, but the jumps narrative revolves around one festival and there was desolation at yesterday's news. The event has already lost Coneygree and Don Cossack; even Sky would struggle to hype the festival to be anything other than disappointing.
Mullins is fortunate in that he has so much back-up. Yorkhill might be a better two-mile chaser than Min and he could easily run over hurdles, something that the champion trainer mentioned as a future possibility recently; Vroum Vroum Mag also looks speedy enough to go close in the Stan James Champion Hurdle.
Then there is Douvan, which would pretty much win whatever race he was asked to - and another one if needed. Trainers less risk-averse than Mullins would have to be tempted to run one of their stars twice. Dermot Weld once ran the same steed twice on the same card - albeit at Laytown.
Footpad's run in the Irish Champion Hurdle, while possibly flattering, suggested he is a player in the Cheltenham equivalent.
Clondaw Warrior and Shaneshill are already players in the Sun Bets Stayers Hurdle. Nichols Canyon is still on the ticket.
Bellshill and Limini could also have new plans, while he has the hot favourite in the Sky Bet Supreme in Melon - and other favourites.
He may relish the challenge of maximising output from a decimated team. More likely he will be wondering which of them will get injured next and what this means for the aspiration of a tenth successive trainers' title in Ireland. It would be hard to blame him.