Faugheen eases for Champion as Mullins opts to swerve trial
There were ripples of unease in the Champion Hurdle market last night after Willie Mullins opted not to enter Faugheen in Saturday's Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park.
Mullins suggested last week that the two-mile Grade Two was being considered for the unbeaten seven-year-old, but he stressed yesterday that he is simply happy to complete Faugheen's preparations at home ahead of next month's Cheltenham Festival.
"He worked this morning; we were very happy with him and he's 100pc," the champion trainer said of last year's emphatic Rich Ricci-owned Neptune Novices' Hurdle victor.
"We had a chat with Ruby (Walsh) this morning and we just felt we'd enough done and we don't need to run him again. We're happy with where we are and, all going well, we'll go straight there (Cheltenham)."
Faugheen has been devastating in both of his starts this term, latterly in Kempton's Christmas Hurdle on St Stephen's Day. However, he faced little meaningful opposition on either occasion, and the fact that he will not have run for 74 days by the time the Festival begins on March 10 appeared to prompt some market concern about his Champion Hurdle prospects.
A number of firms eased him a fraction to 5/4 and 11/10, though the race sponsor Stan James continue to offer him at evens.
In contrast, Jessica Harrington's reigning champion Jezki was nibbled at after she issued a positive bulletin on her seven-year-old. Despite conquering Hurricane Fly for a second time at Punchestown last spring, Jezki has had to play second fiddle to the former dual champion in three outings this term, tiring into third after a blunder at the last flight in last month's epic Irish Champion Hurdle skirmish.
The commonly held view is that the Milan gelding will be more suited by a faster test on drier ground at Cheltenham, and he is now predominantly a 5/1 third favourite from 6/1.
"He came out of the race really well," Harrington said of the JP McManus-owned Cheltenham hero following his Leopardstown defeat. "Because he made a mistake at the last AP (McCoy) didn't give him a hard race.
"He had a week off, no saddle on him and now he's back cantering away and is in great order. He likes better ground and Cheltenham is a stiffer track than Leopardstown and that's what he likes. We'll just train him the same way we did last year.
"We went into the Champion Hurdle last year, finishing second and fourth in the two trial races at Leopardstown and we beat them at Cheltenham, so we'll see what happens."
Nigel Twiston-Davies' 2014 third The New One splits the two Irish horses at 3/1, with Hurricane Fly 8/1 to regain the crown for a second time.
Intriguingly, last season's exciting juvenile Abbyssial could make a belated comeback for Mullins in the Red Mills, with Edward O'Grady's progressive McManus-owned Kitten Rock the highest rated of eight entries on 153.
Mullins has given Champagne Fever and Ballycasey the option of tackling the Grade Two Red Mills Chase, in which Sandra Hughes' Bright New Dawn is also engaged.
He has put the same duo in Saturday's Ascot Chase, a less than vintage edition of the Grade One that could feature Paul Nicholls' leading novice chaser Ptit Zig.
The dual Festival hero Champagne Fever has endured a frustrating couple of outings since winning the Clonmel Oil Chase on his return, falling at the final fence when upsides Don Cossack in the Kinloch Brae Chase last month.
"I was happy with both horses this morning," Mullins said yesterday, before adding of Champagne Fever when asked about getting a confidence-boosting round into him before Cheltenham: "I don't think he has to have a run. We can do the work on the schooling ground. We're just going to see what the entries are like. That will be the main thing."
The Closutton wizard also had an upbeat report on his Mares' Hurdle favourite Annie Power: "I'm very happy with her - so far, so good," he said. "We've not had any more setbacks since Christmas."
Abbyssial has a second option in Navan's Boyne Hurdle over two miles and five furlongs on Sunday, while Mullins has put the exciting novice chaser Don Poli in the Ten Up Novices' Chase.
Enda Bolger's smart Arkle Chase third Gilgamboa is also among 15 entries in that three-miler, and he is in the Flyingbolt Grade Two over two miles as well.
Stuart Crawford, who has left today's Down Royal runner Glenquest in Saturday's Grand National trial at Haydock, ensured that McCoy's fine run since announcing his impending retirement on Saturday continued at Ayr yesterday.
The Co Antrim natives scored with Yes Tom, the 2/1 favourite left clear for a third course win when the chasing Back To Bracka departed two-out in the handicap chase.