Cheltenham Festival 2017
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Willie Mullins Looking To Continue Morgiana Hurdle Dominance As Faugheen Returns

Ahead of the Morgiana Hurdle this weekend, and the expected return of Faugheen, Joseph Smyth (@J_smythracing) takes a look back at the Willie Mullins dominance in the race...

The degree to which Willie Mullins dominates National Hunt racing in Ireland these days is unprecedented.  He has been champion trainer in the country every year since he first dismissed Noel Meade in 2008. He has utilized his team of horses shrewdly each year and has left his mark on a substantial number of races in Ireland within that time.

Mullins first won the Morgiana Hurdle in 1993, when Padashpan ran out a one and a-half-length winner under seven-pound claimer Paul Morris. In those days the Morgiana was a Grade 3, prize money was just £6,600 and they ran an extra two furlongs.

A gap of 17 years without a win in the race, Mullins now goes in search of a seventh consecutive victory in the contest on Sunday. Now a Grade 1, run over two miles and with the super award of €50,150 for the winner.

In 2011, the likeable Thousand Stars was to begin a Mullins domination in the Morgiana Hurdle. The Grey Risk gelding who had made a winning debut for Willie in a handicap hurdle at Naas in 2009, was sent off the well supported 5/4 favourite having finished third in the Irish Champion Hurdle and fourth in the Cheltenham equivalent at the festival behind Hurricane Fly.

Just four lined up for the Morgiana that day and having made all under Ruby Walsh, and having been closely stalked going down to the second last by the Jessica Harrington-trained Oscars Well, he began to lengthen after the final flight to record an easy five and a half-length victory.  

A year on and Mullins again arrived with a well fancied runner. Having finished third in the race behind Solwhit in 2009, Hurricane Fly recorded the first of his three victories in the contest. A 12-length winner on debut of a maiden hurdle at Punchestown for Willie, the Montjeu gelding won the Grade 1 Royal Bond novice hurdle on just his second start in Ireland.

10 Grade 1 victories later, he was a 12-length winner of the Morgiana Hurdle in 2012. Having made all and still in front jumping the last, he always looked to have the measure of the Noel Meade-trained Go Native who was a faller at the final flight when in second place. Unbeaten in four starts after that, he made his seasonal reappearance again in this race in 2013.

This time it was his stablemate Mikael D’haguenet who set the pace. Hurricane Fly loomed up alongside on the run to the last, was eased home under Walsh again and led home a 1-2-3-4 for Mullins in the Grade 1.

His final appearance in the race was arguably his most impressive as he took on a close rival in the Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki. Jezki was the new champion. He was four-years younger than Hurricane Fly and had beaten him in his two previous starts.

That said, the StanJames.com Morgiana Hurdle, was Hurricane Fly’s race. Neck and neck approaching the line, Hurricane Fly battled it out the better to win by just over two-lengths. An exceptional horse who’s record at Punchestown at the end of his career read 113111111212.

In 2015, everything pointed to another Willie Mullins victory in the race. It worked out that way but not by the horse most were expecting to score. Faugheen was unbeaten. He was the 1/6 favourite but it was the stables apparent second string that would lead home a 1-2-3 for the Closutton trainer. At the time Faugheen was rated 19lbs superior to Nichols Canyon. Graham Wylie’s charge who was a listed winner on the flat for John Gosden, was a maiden hurdle winner at Cork on debut for Willie Mullins.

Also a winner of the Grade 1 Royal Bond on his second start, he entered the Morgiana Hurdle as a four-time grade 1 winner. Having made all under Danny Mullins, he showed his familiar determination battling all the way to the line to beat his odds-on stablemate by a ½ length.

Things looked a lot easier on paper for Nichols Canyon in 2016. Faugheen had a bruised foot which meant he didn’t come back right on time. Annie Power worked moderately during the week in the build-up to the race, so Mullins decided to give her more time. There was only five in the line-up, all rated at least 10lb below that of the favourites mark.

On a desperately foggy day, it turned out that way as Nichols Canyon appeared from the mist following the last and ran out a 12-length winner from Jer’s Girl.

On to Sunday as Willie attempts to record an outstanding seventh consecutive victory in the Grade 1.

Sunday’s race is set up beautifully.  All going to plan we will see the eagerly-anticipated return of the Mullins star Faugheen. The son of Germany is reportedly ready to return to action after being side-lined through injury since storming to victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in January 2016.

Faugheen is a versatile horse. He has raced 14 times, once in a point-to-point, once in a bumper and 12 times over hurdles.  He has raced twice over three miles, once over two and three-quarter miles, three times over two and a half miles and eight times over two miles.  He has raced once on heavy ground, three times on soft ground, three times on good to soft ground, five times on good to yielding ground and twice on good ground.  He has only tasted defeat once. 

We can only hope that he returns the same ‘machine’ he left but in the unlikely event that he gets beaten on his return to action, it will probably be one of his stable companions who beats him. Such is the recent Mullins domination in Morgiana hurdle.

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