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Faugheen vies for Rich pickings

Owner Rich Ricci believes Faugheen represents his best chance of winning one of the championship events at the Cheltenham Festival ahead of his bid for glory in the Stan James Champion Hurdle on Tuesday.

Unbeaten in eight career starts, the seven-year-old will attempt to follow in the hoofprints of Istabraq and Hardy Eustace, both of whom won what is now the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle before clinching gold in the two-mile hurdling championship.

While respectful of the opposition, Ricci is confident Willie Mullins' hot favourite has what it takes to emerge triumphant.

"He's a funny horse in that he's won over two miles, two and a half miles and three miles," he said.

"He's not the best looking of horses and has an unusual pedigree, but he just seems to be able to do it.

"He hasn't faced anything like the calibre of horse he's going to run against in the Champion Hurdle, and he's too short (in the betting) for what he's done, but he goes there with a big reputation and he's unbeaten. It would be a dream come true to win one of the championship races and he's the best chance I've ever had in my career."

Ricci rates last year's winner Jezki the biggest threat to Faugheen, but is also wary of esteemed stable companion Hurricane Fly and the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained The New One.

He said: "I would probably say Jezki (is the biggest danger). I think The New One is a very good horse, trained by a very good trainer and ridden by a nice pilot.

"Hurricane Fly, it would be great if he did it. I'd be the first one applauding in the ring if he did because it would be a remarkable feat, but statistics are against him. In fairness, they are against Faugheen as well. It should be a cracking race."

Statisticians will claim the fact Faugheen has not won since his scintillating display in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day is a huge negative, with 2011 champion Rock On Ruby the first horse since Granville Again in 1993 to win the race without having had a prep race in the calendar year.

Mullins is not concerned, however, having decided against an outing in last month's Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park on the advice of stable jockey Ruby Walsh.

Mullins said: "We looked up the stats and we've seen plenty of horses that have gone from Kempton to the Champion Hurdle without a run. I didn't particularly want to travel to England again and I didn't want him to take on Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle. I felt Hurricane Fly deserved to go back to Leopardstown.

"We prepared him for the Red Mills, but we decided not to run and with the ground and everything I'm happy enough we didn't. I asked Ruby if he needed another run over hurdles for experience and he felt he didn't, so I was guided by him."

With Walsh nailing his colours to the Faugheen mast, Hurricane Fly will be partnered by Paul Townend for the first time since steering him to the first of his five Irish Champion Hurdle victories at Leopardstown in 2011.

With Champion Hurdle victories in 2011 and 2013 among a record 22 Grade One wins, the 11-year-old's legendary status is already secured.

Having beaten Jezki in all three of their clashes this season, Mullins would not be surprised to see the apple of his eye become the first horse in history to twice reclaim the crown.

"To me, if Hurricane Fly was two years younger he'd be favourite, clear favourite," said the Irish champion trainer.

"He's done everything that a clear favourite should be. It's just his age, but it can be done at 11 and he's got class. People have said he doesn't run as well in Cheltenham. I'm not so sure.

"He's run there four times and won twice, which is good enough for anyone. It's a 50 per cent record and I think I have two good excuses for the other two times. When he was really right, he scored there. Every horse has to be really right on the day and things have to go right."

Hurricane Fly finished outside the first three for the first time in his hurdling career in last year's Champion Hurdle, faltering up the hill and passing the post in fourth.

After also losing to Jezki at Punchestown in May, the veteran looked close to retirement, but he has roared back to form this season.

Mullins is confident Hurricane Fly is in better form than 12 months ago.

He said: " I just felt last year, for his last two runs, he wasn't sparking the way he can spark, but he wasn't not sparking enough not to run. I felt we had to run.

"We just changed things with him at home. Paul (Townend) rides him all the time and is a great indicator. He's able to tell me down the ounce how he's training. He was giving me positive feedback all the time so we really got him ready for that first run, which we wouldn't have done other years, and it paid off.

"I think a lot of people had been putting in their own minds that he was gone, but I knew he had too much class. I was prepared to accept it if he didn't train this year, but he came back in and trained well and when I trained him hard he took it, whereas in the second half of last season he wasn't taking it and was just going through the motions.

"He was quite tired after the Irish Champion Hurdle, probably more tired than I've ever seen him. He was quite back in himself for a week after, where it normally takes him a day or two to recover. He's back as good as ever again now."

Mullins will also saddle a third runner in Arctic Fire, the mount of Danny Mullins.

The six-year-old picked up minor honours behind Hurricane Fly at Leopardstown on his last two outings and showed a liking for Cheltenham when only narrowly denied in last season's County Hurdle.

"Arctic Fire's a horse that always showed me plenty at home," said the County Carlow handler.

"As a three-year-old, his work was better than any of them and I don't think we've got the best out of him yet. A strong-run race will suit him, he loves the track in Cheltenham."

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