Nichols floors Faugheen
Faugheen's flawless record came to an abrupt end when the Champion Hurdler was foiled at odds of 1/6 by his Willie Mullins-trained stable-mate Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.
Not only unbeaten in 10 track starts plus his 2012 point-to-point debut, Faugheen had hardly been tested before. All that changed in yesterday's Stanjames.com-sponsored Grade One.
Last term, the Graham Wylie-owned Nichols Canyon (7/1) developed a knack for defying the stable's expectations to emerge as a leading novice. He plundered his first Grade One under Paul Townend in the Royal Bond a year earlier when Walsh preferred Allez Colombieres and now has the same number as Faugheen.
This time, with Townend on duty at Cork, the champion trainer's 19-year-old nephew David fell in for the mount, though he couldn't utilise his three-pound claim. In deep ground, he set honest early fractions and coaxed some excellent leaps out of Nichols Canyon.
One criticism levelled at opponents of Faugheen in the past was that he was often allowed to dictate at will, which meant his sometimes awkward hurdling never cost him. As Walsh sought to latch on to Nichols Canyon, Faugheen bundled the second-last flight. He then hung for pressure, and while he fought to the line, he came up half-a-length short.
Mullins, whose Wicklow Brave was third, was keen to accentuate the winner's ascent rather than the loser's demise. "That was completely different to the way they worked during the week when Faugheen left Nichols for dead," he said. "Maybe he left his race behind him, I don't know, but Nichols won four Grade Ones last season. He looks like a Champion Hurdle horse now.
"Maybe Nichols just improved more. It was a huge performance. He is a horse that was under the radar a little last season because he was a second string of ours and yet he won four Grade Ones. We used the wrong tactics when he got beaten at Cheltenham, which took the gloss off him a bit."
Moments earlier, Sprinter Sacre had completed his Lazarus-like return at Cheltenham. If Mullins needed any extra reassurance that a previously invincible equine monster can bounce back, that might have provided it, although it must be said that he was far from dejected at Faugheen's defeat.
"He was a little disappointing," he said of the odds-on shot. "Ruby said that he hung and that is the one worry, but when horses get tired, they hang.
"Maybe he has just met a good horse. Until Faugheen tells me there is something wrong with him, I am not making excuses. They will be in the same races over Christmas and if I can keep them apart I will, but we won't make any plans yet."
Mullins's willingness to let two - or even three - such talents take each other on ensured that he departed with a fifth successive win in the €85,000 two-miler. Boylesports reacted by easing Faugheen to 7/4 from evens to retain his Cheltenham crown, while Nichols Canyon halved in price to 5/1.
Having been sent off at odds of 4/7 to make it two from two over fences, Henry De Bromhead's Sizing John was expected to see off his three rivals in the Grade Two novices' chase.
Nonetheless, the manner in which the Grade One-winning novice hurdler performed under Jonathan Burke was impressive. Sizing John fenced exuberantly and, gallantly as Lord Scoundrel tried to go with him, the handsome five-year-old simply ran him ragged.
"I'm delighted with that," admitted De Bromhead after the eight-length rout. "He jumped great and although that wouldn't be his preferred ground, he worked his way through it. The two-mile Grade One at Leopardstown is the obvious next step - I'm not in any hurry to step him up in trip."
There was a slight turn-up in the two-mile-six-furlong Grade Two, with the prospects of market principals Killer Miller and Wrath Of Titans compromised by mistakes. Colin Bowe's Shantou Flyer, which won for a third time in four starts when successful at Cheltenham last month, is fast evolving into a highly efficient novice.
Here, Bowe's long-serving stable amateur Barry O'Neill proved a more than able deputy for Mark Walsh. The 26-year-old sent Shantou Flyer on two-out and the game, compact five-year-old kept finding to give the rider his second win at this level.
"I might give him a break but the three-mile Grade One at Christmas is an option because he is thriving," Bowe said of 5/1 shot Shantou Flyer, which was having its 10th start of 2015. "He stays all day and the four-miler at Cheltenham would be his main target."
Patrick Mooney's Colla Pier was a well-backed (10/1 into 13/2) handicap hurdle winner for Jack Kennedy, while Ruby Walsh partnered Dermot McLoughlin's point-to-point winner Conal (3/1 co-fav) to victory on its track bow in the maiden hurdle.