Hot favourite Faugheen was an impressive winner of the 2015 Stan James Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham today (Tuesday 10 March).
In what was one of the most anticipated races of the season, “Faugheen the Machine” — as the seven-year-old gelding has been dubbed by fans — thrilled the crowd during showpiece of day one at the Cheltenham Festival.
And was a one-two-three in the race for Irish trainer Willie Mullins, who sent out Arctic Fire to finish second and Hurricane Fly in third.
Unbeaten Faugheen led from the off and travelled strongly throughout. Coming down the hill third from home his stablemate Hurricane Fly, Jezki and The New One all looked in contention, but Faugheen quickened away under Ruby Walsh when he was asked to pick up after the last.
He won by a length and a half, ahead of fast-finishing Arctic Fire, who was ridden by Danny Mullins.
The victory extended Faugheen’s unbeaten stretch to nine.
“I wasn’t concerned at any stage, I thought he was well in control all the time,” said Mullins.
“I didn’t think he would win that impressively. Ruby rode him with huge confidence and he showed that he was the good horse Ruby and everybody else thought he was.
“Faugheen has to be right up there with the other great horses I’ve trained. I’m not going to say he is as good as Hurricane Fly in his heyday as he has a lot more improving to do. This is only his second Grade One. He is a very good horse and probably over hurdles the second best I’ve trained.”
Hurricane Fly won the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle in 2011, and became the first horse in 38 years to regain the crown when he won again in 2013.
The popular Irish hurdler secured his 22nd Grade One win — setting a record — in January, winning the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Mullins praised the 11-year-old’s performance.
“Hurricane Fly ran a terrific race, I thought he was going to get right into it at the second-last. I think Paul [Townend] was very happy and I was happy how he ran — no disgrace,” he added.
Walsh, who partnered Hurricane Fly in the horse’s previous Champion Hurdle wins, had a tough decision on his hands heading into the race, but he always had faith in Faugheen.
“It was a massive decision not to ride Hurricane Fly,” said Walsh.
“I know the betting reflected that I was always going to ride Faugheen but when you are in a stable like Willie’s and you see what Hurricane Fly is doing at home, it is still a big call to make and get off him.
“This [Faugheen] is an incredible little horse, a fine horse. He was awkward at the second last but pinged the last and saw it out well. This is probably the best feel I’ve ever had from him — it was certainly his biggest challenge facing all these good horses.”
Jezki, the winner last year, trained by Jessica Harrington, finished fourth.
The New One finished fifth, with Kitten Rock in sixth, Bertimont in seventh and Vaniteux in eighth.
Annie Power “ok” after fall
Faugheen provided trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Ruby Walsh with their third winner of the day, as the pair had earlier triumphed in the opening race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Douvan and then in the Arkle Chase with Un De Sceaux.
The combination looked set to score for a fourth time with favourite Annie Power in the OLGB Mares’ Hurdle, when the seven-year-old fell at the last.
Mullins reported Annie Power to be fine after her fall in the race won by Glens Melody.
“Annie Power’s good. It was a horrible fall, she is going to be sore in the morning on her leg and shoulder but she is ok,” said Mullins, who also trained the winner.
Glens Melody, who was second to Quevega last year, is to retire to the paddocks at the end of this season, following today’s victory.
A record first-day Festival crowd of 63,249, up 6,166 on last year, was at Cheltenham today for the racing.