Power surges into Champion reckoning with Faugheen out
Out of nowhere, the tantalising prospect of Annie Power tackling the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham is a live possibility after she dotted up on her Punchestown return just moments after the title-holder Faugheen was sensationally ruled out of the race.
Faugheen will miss the rest of the season with a suspensory ligament strain, the same injury that last week saw his Willie Mullins-trained stablemate Killultagh Vic sidelined. Annie Power is not in the Champion Hurdle at this stage.
"We were just bringing him back," Mullins said yesterday in reference to Faugheen's work following his Irish Champion Hurdle rout on January 24. "It was 28 days from (Tuesday) to the Champion Hurdle, and I felt I better start doing a bit with him, getting serious."
"He was just a little bit sore and our vet confirmed that it was just a small issue at the top of his suspensory.
"It is something like what happened Hurricane Fly going to Cheltenham, and he came back and he was sound as a pound for five or six years after.
"We think that the prognosis is very good and that he should be back as good as new next season."
As was illustrated by the subsequent market reshuffles - and, indeed, as was magnanimously acknowledged by the champion trainer - Mullins is better equipped than anyone else to absorb such blows.
Despite losing Faugheen, which had been as short 1/4 with some bookmakers to retain its crown, Mullins still has the first three in the betting for the two-miler.
Annie Power would have to be supplemented for the £400,000 event at a cost of £20,000.
For connections of Faugheen and the punters who backed him in ante-post markets and Cheltenham Festival multiples, the latest forfeits were unveiled with cruel timing shortly before the news of his injury broke.
Then Annie Power justified an SP of 1/20 by pulverising her two rivals from the front under Ruby Walsh in a first-time hood at Punchestown.
She had been long odds-on to atone for her 2015 last-flight fall in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle on the opening day of the Festival, with the World Hurdle her other option going into yesterday.
However, she is now as big as 7/2 for the mares' race, with her fellow Rich Ricci-owned Vroum Vroum Mag heading that market at odds of 6/4.
Most firms immediately installed Annie Power as their new Champion Hurdle favourite, with the race sponsor Stan James top-priced about her at 9/4.
Mullins' 2015 runner-up Arctic Fire is now 7/2 from 8/1 to go one better, with Nichols Canyon, the only horse to beat Faugheen, 5/1 from 12/1.
"It's certainly an option," Mullins indicated of a Champion Hurdle tilt for Annie Power.
"We could get her supplemented. I haven't spoken to the owner yet about anything like that, but it must be on the cards. The balls are bouncing a bit differently today.
"I always thought that she was a two-and-a-half-mile mare - that's the distance at which she could really shine - but she has enough speed to go back to two miles.
"I would rather run her in the Champion Hurdle than I would the World Hurdle."
Of yesterday's bloodless demolition, Mullins reflected: "She was very, very keen. I'm sure the hood probably helped her.
"I suppose it was just a schooling exercise, but that was plenty for her at this stage and we still have a few more hard bits of work to do between now and then."
Mullins has previously empathised in public with connections of Coneygree when the reigning Gold Cup hero was sidelined for the campaign.
He was similarly magnanimous on this occasion, displaying an admirable philosophical bent in adversity by referencing Gary Moore, whose Arkle Trophy contender Ar Mad has joined stablemates Traffic Fluide and Violet Dancer on the sidelines.
"It's disappointing but looking at Gary Moore, I would feel more for someone like that because that's their whole stable star, whereas we have other horses to keep us going," Mullins mused.
"When you see smaller trainers with their stable star out, that's a bigger pill than what we have to take. We are lucky enough, we are in a different position. It's very disappointing one way or the other, but we still have plenty to keep us busy."
Neither the outgoing Champion Hurdler nor the holder of the Gold Cup will now return to the Cotswolds to defend their titles. Invariably at this time of the year, though, as screws are being tightened ahead of the most competitive racing environment imaginable, the attrition rate increases.
Mullins's father Paddy famously won the 1984 Champion Hurdle with the brilliant Dawn Run. Flakey Dove became just the third mare to win the race 10 years later.
As such, Annie Power, whose gallant second to More Of That in the 2014 World Hurdle did much to advance her right to be known as the best jumps mare in recent times, would be vying for a little piece of history should she contest the main event on March 15.
Mullins' Sempre Medici was also among the 14 left in the Champion Hurdle, along with Henry de Bromhead's Identity Thief, now as low as 4/1 from 14/1.
Unsurprisingly, given what unfolded, Thistlecrack hardened as the Ladbrokes World Hurdle market leader into a best-priced 5/4.
Otherwise, yesterday's forfeits for the six championship events shed little light on the targets of horses yet to be committed to a race.
In total, Irish-trained horses account for a massive 77 of the 162 entries.
Given yesterday's events, it is no surprise that many are having their options kept open.
The seismic developments overshadowed Gordon Elliott's feat of clocking up his first domestic jumps century when Walsh - completing a quick Punchestown treble - steered Robin Thyme (11/10 fav) to victory.
Since Aidan O'Brien last dominated the jumps scene in 1997, Mullins and Noel Meade (2007) are the only other trainers to break the 100-winner mark.