A year is a long time in racing. Cast your mind back to February 2016. Willie Mullins was just about to saddle Outlander to victory in the Grade One Flogas Novices’ Chase at Leopardstown and was readying a team for the Cheltenham Festival stacked full of star quality and unbound potential which would go on to claim seven victories at the 2016 Festival, courtesy of horses including Annie Power (Champion Hurdle), Douvan (Arkle Chase) and Vautour (Ryanair Chase).
A year on, Outlander and around 60 other horses owned by Gigginstown House Stud, including Don Poli, Apple’s Jade and Valseur Lido have been removed from Closutton following a disagreement over training fees, whilst magnificent Ryanair winner Vautour and promising chaser Avant Tout have died in separate incidents in a paddock and on the racecourse.
Now to add insult to injury in a season where improving mare Limini and Killultagh Vic have also been on the sidelines, Mullins and his team must now enter the cauldron of Prestbury Park without three of their big-name stars; last year’s Champion Hurdle winner Annie Power, 2015 victor Faugheen and Arkle hope Min.
Annie Power’s absence from the Grade One two-mile Championship event has been known since January after the nine-year-old suffered a leg injury which may prevent her from ever stepping foot on a racecourse again with Mullins commenting: “She is definitely out of Cheltenham and possibly the rest of the season, but it’s too early to say.”
However, the sucker-punch for Ireland’s Champion trainer was landed last week when it was announced that Faugheen, not seen on a racecourse since his win in the 2016 Irish Champion Hurdle, along with Supreme Novices’ Hurdle second Min, would also miss the Cheltenham showpiece due to injury.
Mullins told the Racing Post: “Faugheen has suffered a stress fracture to his right hand ilium bone. He is definitely out of Cheltenham but I’m hoping he will be okay to return for Punchestown.”
In what has been an injury plagued career for the son of Germany following his victory in the Champion Hurdle in 2015, Faugheen has suffered a litany of problems including a sore supensory issue which prevented him running at the 2016 Festival. As short as 6/4 for this year’s race before Mullins’ announcement, National Hunt fans will have to wait till at least Punchestown to hopefully see ‘The Machine’ on the track once more.
As for Min, the hyped-up son of Walk In The Park who has made a bright start to his chasing career, which included a decisive victory in the Grade One Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown in December, has according to his Closutton handler: “Been found to have a bruise to a cannon bone and he is definitely out of the Arkle. He needs some time off.”
Mullins hopes to have the six-year-old back in time for Fairyhouse in April but his withdrawal robs National Hunt fans of a heavyweight clash between Min and his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle conqueror Altior in this year’s Arkle.
In particular, these injury troubles are gut-wrenching for owner Rich Ricci who has invested so much into this game and is now suffering the hardship that can accompany the sport.
The Irish handler which Ricci has invested so much with must now ready a new battalion for Cheltenham which seems likely to call upon some of Closutton’s finest ‘super-subs’ to take the place of Mullins’ vanquished champions.
That list includes the ultra-consistent Vroum Vroum Mag who is durable over both fences and hurdles. She was a gutsy winner at Doncaster last time, justifying offs of 1/5 and looks most likely to tackle the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, which was won last year by another horse who might not make the Festival; Limini.
Arguably the most interesting decision that Mullins will have to make in the weeks to come is what race Yorkhill goes for. Andrea and Graham Wylie’s gelding was very impressive when dispatching Yanworth et al in last year’s Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle and has looked good, if not spectacular since switched to fences this season. The rumour mill suggests he may follow the example set by Nicky Henderson’s Buveur D’Air and contest the Champion Hurdle instead of the JLT Novices’ Chase, over a shorter trip of two miles and smaller obstacles. He is 7/2 for the Champion.
Similarly, Mullins continues to have an abundance of riches within his younger ranks and will be hoping the well-touted Melon, who created a favourable impression on his debut for the stable at Leopardstown last month can lead the way by winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the first race of the meeting to get the Mullins bandwagon rolling again.
Other horses Mullins will be looking to keep in cotton wool before the Festival include Champion Chase favourite Douvan, Cheltenham Gold Cup hope Djakadam, RSA Chase favourite Bellshill, Champion Bumper favourite Getabird, Mares Novice Hurdle market-leader Airlie Beach, Let’s Dance and Augusta Kate to name but a few.
Judging by some of the names just mentioned, Mullins still has plenty of firepower to aim at Prestbury Park but without some of his most established superstars, eclipsing last year’s total of seven winners might take some doing with Mullins 1/6 with Betfair to have under 7 winners and 11/8 with the same firm to have over 7 winners.
Whatever happens at the Festival in March, it is disappointing not just for the potent triumvirate of Walsh, Mullins and Ricci to be without their big-names but it is also frustrating for National Hunt fans who treat the Festival as the greatest show on Earth with the best horses running there. Sadly, injury has robbed us of that delight.