Mullins gives Faugheen option of Gowran Park trial
Faugheen could grace an Irish racecourse for just the second time in more than a year after Willie Mullins confirmed that he is considering running the red-hot Champion Hurdle favourite in Saturday week's Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park.
In four starts during 2014, Faugheen's only home game came at the Punchestown Festival in April, when he thrashed stablemate Valseur Lido on his first stab at two miles over flights.
The emphatic Neptune Novices' Hurdle victor has continued to excel over the minimum trip, destroying inferior rivals at long odds-on under Ruby Walsh on cross-channel forays to Ascot and Kempton this term.
The superiority that he displayed in a Grade One at the latter venue over Christmas has left him a general even-money market leader for the two-mile crown at the Cheltenham Festival.
Mullins, who is also preparing his indomitable two-time title-holder Hurricane Fly for the race, had suggested that Faugheen might not run again before the £400,000 March 10 event.
However, while he remains noncommittal, his comments yesterday suggest that an eighth outing over flights might be in the offing for his exciting seven-year-old before the big day. "We're looking at the Red Mills. I think there's one other contest left in England - we'll keep all our options open," the champion trainer said of Faugheen. "The horse is in good form. We'll have a chat with Ruby to see if he needs more experience, but at the moment I'm very happy with him."
Wincanton's Kingwell Hurdle - on the same day as the Red Mills - is likely to be the English option, but there may not be much value in targeting that Grade Two so close to Cheltenham.
That said, in monetary terms it is of considerably more value, with the Red Mills prize fund of €42,500 paling somewhat alongside the Wincanton purse, which is nearly twice as big at close to £60,000.
Apart from giving the unbeaten Faugheen some more experience, another outing would offer Walsh one last opportunity to weigh up his merits.
The peerless rider, who is chasing down championship leader Mark Walsh in his bid to emulate Frank Berry's record of 10 jump jockeys' titles, will have to decide between the precocious rising star and Hurricane Fly.
Walsh has already opted to stick with Boston Bob over On His Own in Sunday's Hennessy Gold Cup, stating that "Boston Bob has improved since" finishing five lengths behind the Lexus Chase runner-up at Christmas.
The warrior-like 11-year-old Hurricane Fly conquered Jezki for a third time this season when securing his fifth Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, and Mullins feels that the apple of his eye isn't getting the credit he deserves as an 8/1 fourth favourite.
"If he was a year younger, or maybe two or three years, he'd be favourite, wouldn't he?" he mused of Hurricane Fly. "He has done everything he has been asked; he has beaten the reigning champion hurdler (Jezki).
"His age is the only thing against him, and possibly people feel Cheltenham is not his track, yet he has won twice there. I'm going to give him the respect he has earned, anyway."
Among the outsiders for this year's Neptune is the former Philip Fenton-trained Bentelimar, which maintained its 100pc record for new handler Shay Barry when scoring in Listed company at Punchestown on Sunday, having previously won for him at Leopardstown over Christmas.
Successful in four of his last six hurdle starts, the improving son of Beneficial also has the option of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, with the County Hurdle and Coral Cup likely to be considered as well.
Whichever race he goes for, Bentelimar will be a first Festival runner for Barry, a rookie in his current vocation who won the 1999 Grand Annual Chase on Jessica Harrington's Space Trucker.
"I think there's more pressure training than there was riding," admits Waterford-based Barry, who has saddled just three winners in all.
"I was delighted with Bentelimar the other day, especially as he showed he can do it over the shorter trip.
"He stays two-and-a-half miles, but I'd say he might be best over two miles in Cheltenham as they'll go a right gallop. It's just great to be hopefully going over there with a horse with a chance in my first season training."