Faugheen stars for Mullins with Champion show
A PAIR of equine giants at opposite ends of the age spectrum stole the show at Punchestown yesterday when Sizing Europe and Faugheen combined to leave a record crowd in raptures.
It might not be out with the old and in with the new as connections of Sizing Europe were ultimately non-committal as to whether they would retire their colossal 12-year-old after witnessing him race with youthful enthusiasm en route to landing the Boylesports.com Champion Chase.
If he is inevitably inching closer to the end of a glorious career, though, Faugheen is beginning to look like he might one day scale similar heights.
Willie Mullins' rising star made light of the drop to two miles to thrust himself into the Champion Hurdle picture with an astounding 12-length rout in the Herald Novice Hurdle.
Prior to final declarations appearing for the €90,000 contest on Sunday morning, few would even have countenanced such a possibility for a horse that had ploughed through heavy ground to win over three miles at Limerick in December.
However, after Vautour failed a late fitness test, Mullins reconsidered his options. This superlative showing thoroughly vindicated his conviction.
Ruby Walsh bucked Faugheen out in front from the off, and the five-year-old never missed a beat. He scooted effortlessly clear with his ears pricked from the home turn, Walsh enjoying the luxury of patting him down the neck as he stretched his unbeaten record to six hard on the bridle.
"Everyone was telling me how good he was, so I said I'd see for myself," the champion trainer joked of his 1/2 favourite after the virtuoso recital.
"We'll consider staying over hurdles with him and on that evidence he could well be a Champion Hurdle horse, but there is lots to sort out yet.
"Vautour should be okay to run on Friday, although the drying ground would be a concern for all my good horses this week."
Asked if he still stood over his March statement that Vautour is in a different league to Faugheen, Mullins didn't back down an inch, so we could be in for a treat on Friday if he deems the ground – changed to good from good to yielding after the Festival's first Grade One – sufficiently safe.
Faugheen was promoted to as low as 5/1 joint favourite for the 2015 Champion Hurdle. However, some context might be evident in the times, with Cool Macavity, the Nicky Henderson-trained victor of the handicap hurdle, taking just 2/10ths of a second longer to collect for Barry Geraghty.
If Faugheen was the day's most stunning visual winner, Sizing Europe was the most popular. Henry de Bromhead's stable star rolled back the years with a barnstorming coup, capitalising on his rivals' error-strewn jumping and eagerly grabbing hold of the bit when the gloves game off.
Successful in the €200,000 feature in 2012 and also placed twice previously, including when rattling Sprinter Sacre last year, he was winning his eighth Grade One in all. With the favourite Hidden Cyclone crashing out at the fifth and taking Module with him, it was probably as soft as any of his top-level triumphs, though that mattered little to his adoring fans, not least De Bromhead.
"I have been saying for years that he has been amazing for us," the Co Waterford-based handler gushed. "I thought there was another performance like that in him but it hadn't been happening this season. He was just brilliant."
Ballynagour and Savello filled the minor places, as Sizing Europe (10/1 into 7/1) became the first of his vintage to win a Grade One since Florida Pearl took the Hennessy Gold Cup 10 years ago.
Carlingford Lough earned quotes of 33/1 for next year's Cheltenham Gold Cup after completing a double for JP McManus in the Growise Champion Novice Chase.
AP McCoy's John Kiely-trained mount outfought Ballycasey from the last fence to secure his second Grade One of the season.
McManus initiated his brace when Be Positive (3/1 favourite) enhanced Enda Bolger's title as king of the banks in the Kildare Hunt Club Memorial Chase for Nina Carberry, who was just denied a double on Snow Falcon when Very Much So (12/1) completed one for Mullins in the Land Rover Bumper.
Patrick Mullins had passed up the chance to ride Very Much So as he didn't feel that he was forward enough to win, and his father was equally surprised. "I'd say that's the first bit of work he has ever won," he quipped of the Johnny Burke-ridden winner.
The opposite is true of the latter bumper winner, as Dermot Weld's regally-bred Forgotten Rules (evens) was heavily backed. He duly dotted up by a yawning 13 lengths for Robbie McNamara.
Bookmakers' turnover came in at €1,158,485, up from €1,137,072 in 2013.