Cheltenham: Faugheen heads a 1-2-3 for Mullins

Ruby Walsh steersFaugheen back to the winners enclosure after his Champion Hurdle win. Picture: GettyRuby Walsh steersFaugheen back to the winners enclosure after his Champion Hurdle win. Picture: Getty
Ruby Walsh steersFaugheen back to the winners enclosure after his Champion Hurdle win. Picture: Getty
Faugheen was the star of the show in the Stan James Champion Hurdle as he headlined an amazing Willie Mullins four-timer on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, although bookmakers were saved an estimated £50 million pay-out after the dramatic last-flight exit of Annie Power in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.

It is safe to say it was an eventful day for jockey Ruby Walsh, who looked crestfallen after Annie Power crumpled with the race at her mercy, but who enjoyed a glorious Mullins-trained treble, the highlight of which was Faugheen’s masterclass.

It was always going to take something special for Walsh to give up the ride on the record-breaking Hurricane Fly in the big race but, after leading from pillar to post in the championship event, it was clear just why he did.

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While Faugheen had promised to do something like this and was sent off the 4-5 favourite, the seven-year-old still had to prove himself at the highest level.

With three of the first four from last year’s race lining up, Faugheen was going to be tested to the limit, or so we thought, but, after giving his mount a breather coming down the hill, Walsh pressed the button and the response was immediate. For a few strides the veteran Hurricane Fly (8-1) loomed large in search of a third win, but he could find no more up the hill and it was left to another Mullins runner, Arctic Fire (20-1), to chase home the winner.

He was a length and a half behind, but Walsh felt his mount was idling having been in front for so long. It meant Mullins became the first man in history to saddle the first three home, an achievement even he felt was beyond him on his way to the track. “You dream of it, but you don’t think it could ever happen,” said Mullins.

“I’ll leave it for other people to decide if it’s my greatest achievement, but it would have to be right up there, along with some fantastic days at Punchestown, riding a winner here and winning a Grand National. I wouldn’t like to rate them.”

Walsh was just happy to be vindicated having opted against riding Mullins’ favourite horse. “It was a massive call not to ride Hurricane Fly. When you see what Hurricane Fly was doing at home, it was a big call to get off him,” he said. “Faugheen’s not slow, no-one else wanted to make it and I was going to go my fractions not theirs. Willie is a genius and has a great team of staff around him. Faugheen is a wonderful horse.”

Victory in the feature was part of a remarkable few hours for Mullins, after the wins of Douvan and Un De Sceaux earlier on the card and Glens Melody taking advantage of the fall of red-hot favourite and stablemate Annie Power.

Douvan gave Mullins and Walsh the perfect start to the Festival when running out a smooth winner of the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Walsh brought the 2-1 favourite to lead before the final flight and Douvan bounded up the hill to score by four-and-a-half lengths.

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Un De Sceaux fulfilled the promise he has shown all season by producing an electric performance from the front to demolish his rivals in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy. Although facing early competition for the lead from Dunraven Storm and Sail By The Sea, the 4-6 favourite soon had his own way at the head of affairs under Walsh as he burnt both horses off with his high-cruising speed and slick jumping.

Producing another fine leap at the last, the seven-year old soon quickened once again when called on for a maximum effort to run out a six-length winner ahead of God’s Own.

Meanwhile, The Druids Nephew (8-1) more than halved in price (from 33-1 to 14-1) with some bookmakers for the Crabbie’s Grand National after a clear-cut success in the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase.

Cause Of Causes (8-1) also forwarded his Aintree claims as he gave his owner JP McManus a special 64th birthday present when opening his account over fences in the Toby Balding National Hunt Chase, while Paul Townend set the seal on a memorable day as he steered the Rebecca Curtis-trained Irish Cavalier to victory in the CHAPS Restaurants Barbados Novices’ Handicap Chase.