Former Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen survived a couple of jumping errors to make a winning start over fences on his chasing debut at Punchestown on Saturday. The famous 11-year-old is embarking on a novice chasing campaign and he scraped through his bow with a hard-fought victory in the Naas Oil Beginners Chase. It was not exactly the calibre of opposition that Faugheen is accustomed to facing, as he has previously vanquished the greatest hurdlers in the land. But trainer Willie Mullins will be pleased to see him emerged unscathed, and he can now plot a path towards glory over smaller obstacles.
This is a make or break season for a horse dubbed “The Machine”. He burst onto the scene during an eye-catching novice hurdles campaign in 2013/14, which culminated with him winning the Grade 1 Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle in the second fastest time in the race’s history. He maintained his unbeaten streak throughout the following season, seizing the Christmas Hurdle and then delivered on his status as the 4/5 favourite to win the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham by breezing to a comfortable victory.
Faugheen suffered a surprise defeat at the beginning of the2015/16 season, but bounced back by winning the Christmas Hurdle for a second consecutive year. He was then rated the best two-mile hurdler of the 21st century after an emphatic win at the Irish Champion Hurdle. He finished 15 lengths clear of runner-up Arctic Fire. Greatness awaited Faugheen, but things have not quite gone to plan since then. He suffered a season-ending injury while training in February 2016 and he was ultimately off the track for 22 months. He made a winning return at his old stomping ground, Punchestown, but then began to struggle.
The Light Begins to Dim
Faugheen went off as the 2/11 favourite for the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase at Leopardstown, but he was pulled up by new rider Paul Townend, deputising for the injured Ruby Walsh. He was odds-on once again to win the Irish Christmas Hurdle in 2018, but he could only finish second to Supasundae. He then gave an underwhelming performance in finishing sixth in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, disappointing punters that thought he could overwhelm Buveur d’Air. The Machine returned to winning ways at the Grade 1 Champion Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown showing that he still had what it takes to challenge for the top honours.
He was second in the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle on his seasonal reappearance, but then fell at the Christmas Hurdle, before finishing third at the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and being pulled up at the Aintree Hurdle. Mullins has now decided to change tack and push him into a novice campaign over smaller obstacles. It is a bold move and it could spark a renaissance for the popular veteran, but if it ends it failure it may be the end of him. Faugheen is 11 and that is very late to be starting a novice campaign, and he could be eased into retirement if it does not work out.
A Bold Change of Tack
The Closutton maestro has always flirted with the idea of sending Faugheen chasing. Back in 2015, after The Machine extended his record to 11 wins from 11 races at the Punchestown, Mullins hailed him as a future chaser. “He wants fences to maybe make him drop the bridle and travel,” said the iconic trainer. Yet Faugheen continued to dazzle over hurdlers and Mullins changed his tune by the time he won the Champion Hurdle that year. “There’s no reason to go novice chasing when you have a hurdler as good as this,” he said.
Yet Faugheen’s form over hurdles has seemingly swayed him. The Machine was well beaten in the Stayers’ Hurdle in March, and his decline over hurdles was clear. You could argue that he never fully recovered from injury that kept him out of action for 22 months. In his heyday he was electrifying, but he has lost his sparkle over hurdles and he has not been jumping with the old flair and confidence in recent races. Faugheen took a bad tumble early in the year and that has seemingly affected him.
Mullins clearly feels that a change of discipline has the potential to revitalise him. There was a considerable buzz around Punchestown as the legendary hurdler prepared to make his chasing bow at the weekend. It is extremely rare to see such a superstar slumming it in a soft beginners chase, and plenty of punters lumped on Faugheen, who was an attractively priced favourite with top betting sites like https://www.marathonbet.co.uk/en/betting/Horse+Racing. It was not all plain sailing, but he eventually got the job done.
Battering the Schnitzel
Townend was happy to let The Machine lead from the front, and everything went to plan until he approached the eighth fence. He made a complete hash of the jump and almost unseated his rider, but Townend somehow managed to cling on and return to his saddle in time to clear the ninth. That blunder saw Faugheen lose the lead to Lord Schnitzel. Another error saw him peck on landing after jumping over the third from last fence, but the nine-time Grade 1 winner eventually rallied and his class shone through as he soared over the final two fences and secured a seven-and-a-half length victory from Walk Away, with Lord Schnitzel third.
His trainer put on a brave face following his shaky start to life as a chaser. “Faugheen is a bit stiff this morning,” said Mullins on the day after the race. “I think he's fine, but any horse that hits a fence hard is going to be a bit sore. I expect him to be all right in a couple of days.”
Sterner Challenges Await
It is one thing winning a modest beginners chase, but triumphing in Graded novices chases and going on to challenge for the biggest honours is another matter entirely. It is worth noting that Faugheen is lightly raced, albeit due to injury, and that could count in his favour. Many horses make the transition to chasing late in their careers, so Mullins’ strategy is not particularly unusual. Plenty from his stable have started novice chasing careers after thriving over hurdles.
However, Faugheen holds a special place in the hearts of many racing fans and they are keen to see him end his career on a high note. Many fear seeing a diminished Machine being trounced by young guns in a quick Grade 1 contest. Some even point to the fate suffered by Wicklow Brave as a cautionary tale about changing disciplines late on in a stellar career.
The light has seemingly dimmed in Faugheen. It would be thrilling to see him make a success of his jumps career, but so many have made the transition and disappointed, meaning expectations must be tempered. Some punters will gleefully oppose him as he steps up in class, particularly on hard ground. His nervy performance at Punchestown does not inspire a great deal of optimism, and there was always a sense that he sprawled too much with his hind legs when clearing hurdles, which could see him come unstuck over fences. It seems as though Faugheen could retire soon, and he will receive a raucous reception when he does, but punters will be waxing lyrical about his form between 2014 and 2016 rather than his late chasing career.