Tony Elves looks back at the weekend's action with an eye to the the festival in March.
You get the feeling that, as the Cheltenham Festival starts to appear on the horizon, the Mullins’ team are hitting crescendo level and Faugheen cemented his already obvious chance at the head of the market for the Stan James Champion Hurdle with a performance of sublime class in the Grade 1 Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday.
It now seems quite unbelievable that Nichols Canyon was able to inflict defeat on Faugheen in the Morgiana Hurdle, as the Champion Hurdle market leader was always in command from the front and, hurdling as fluently as he has ever done, had the race sewn up before the second-last. The 30-100 shot was eased close home as he cruised to a 15-length victory from Arctic Fire, who had chased him home at Cheltenham last year. Faugheen is a best-priced 2-5 to retain his Champion Hurdle crown and it looks like he only needs to put in a clear round of jumping to be crowned the champion two-mile hurdler once again.
Douvan was equally - if not more - impressive in the Frank Ward Solicitors Novices’ Chase earlier on the Leopardstown card, producing as slick a display of fencing as could have been hoped for, before sailing clear from the 143-rated Velvet Maker to score by 15 lengths.
His connections suggest that he hurdles his fences but is clever with it, and that will stand him in good stead for the Arkle Challenge Trophy. He gives both connections and enthusiasts the impression that he could, quite literally, be anything and although the presence of these Mullins horses irons out a lot of ante-post interest, Douvan looks something to savour for the purists.
Un De Sceaux looked to have a proper test in the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase at Ascot on Saturday and any flaws in his make-up looked likely to be found out by the tough-as-teak Sire De Grugy.
Jamie Moore rode as good a race on Sire De Grugy as he has ever done as he tried to bustle up the front running Un De Sceaux in the final half-mile, but every challenge that was presented to the 1-2 shot was quickly brushed aside and he strode majestically up the Ascot finish to score by five lengths.
This effort proved that Un De Sceaux can hack it when the pressure is applied and he looks another banker for the Mullins team in the Betway Champion Chase.
Vroum Vroum Mag was another in action at Ascot on Saturday where she took the Grade 2 OLBG.Mares’ Hurdle by three-and-a-half lengths from Jennies Jewel. Once again, the 4-6 chance was always travelling supremely well but the form looks questionable with the runner-up rated just 138 and her two main market rivals both seriously underperforming.
It looks as though her festival target now hinges on whether connections can get a run into Annie Power before March, in which case she will then head to the World Hurdle, leaving Vroum Vroum Mag to take all the beating in the mares’ contest.
Last but not least was the effort of A Toi Phil in the Grade 2 Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday. Available at a backable 6-4 for the 2m 4f contest, A Toi Phil set the mood for the afternoon for the Muin Beag trainer as he produced a polished performance to score easily by seven lengths from Acapella Bourgeois.
Once again, the winner has all the novice hurdle options in front of him and, until a final decision is made, it doesn’t make much sense to speculate on what race he might turn up in.
The 6-4 offered about Mullins training ten of more Cheltenham Festival winners might be quite unbelievable but, come close of play on March 18, that may well go down as one of the gilt-edged opportunities of the season with the all-conquering team quite likely to be represented in every one of the 28 contests on offer over the four days.