Top 10 Most Popular Horses: Faugheen finishes 4th

Top 10 Most Popular Horses of the 21st Century: #4 Faugheen
Top 10 Most Popular Horses of the 21st Century: #4 Faugheen

As we enter the business end of our Top 10 Most Popular Horses of the 21st Century, we move onto the horse that just missed out on a place in the top three… 

When compiling the list for the Top 10 Most Popular horses, the biggest problem was where to place this guy. A horse that has crossed generations, staged an incredible comeback and captured the hearts of thousands - there was a case to put him in the top three. But just missing out and taking the fourth-place spot is the mighty Faugheen, an icon of National Hunt Racing for the 2010s.

A true titan of the game, Faugheen was first seen on a racecourse in early 2013 after winning his point-to-point, and went on to have a career that spanned seven seasons and saw him scoop 11 Grade 1 wins in the process, including latterly over fences. Such is his longevity as a top horse despite his injuries, Faugheen is often associated with the Rich Ricci ‘Golden era’, a time where those iconic pale pink and green polkadot silks sat at the top of the market for most major Grade 1s. Douvan, Vautour, Annie Power, Vroum Vroum Mag, Djakadam, Faugheen - the 2014 era really was quite special for Ricci and Mullins.

A look at the 2020 Ricci battalion makes for slightly more disappointing reading when compared to those glory days, but one name pops up again. Beanie Des Dieux, Min, Monkfish, Chacun Pour Soi, Sharjah, Faugheen. The machine still in working order after all that time.

After going on a 10 race unbeaten run from his debut for Mullins in 2013, winning the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, Punchestown Champion Novice Hurdle, the Christmas Hurdle, Champion Hurdle and Punchestown Champion Hurdle (All Grade 1s) in doing so, many thought Faugheen was to long rein over the division and sweep up every Grade 1 available to him. It wasn’t until November 2015 when he suffered his first career defeat as the 1/6f, being beaten by stablemate Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana Hurdle, though a swift bounce back to form with a second Christmas Hurdle win followed by a jaw-dropping 15-length Irish Champion Hurdle success in late January showed this was just a blip and all roads lead to a defence of his Champion Hurdle crown.

However this is where the tide would turn for Faugheen, frustrating as it was but with hindsight part of his charm now. Just one month before the Cheltenham Festival it was announced Faugheen had picked up a suspensory ligament injury that would rule him out for the season. Although at the time described as nothing major, and only about an eight week recovery phase, constant complications with bruising and fractures along the way meant we didn't see Faugheen for a whopping 665 days. The months rolled by and new stars were born, and we were all sat wondering if we’d ever see Faugheen again, until it was announced he would return in November 2017 for the Morgiana Hurdle. 

Despite 22 months off the course, The machine showed us why he adopts that particular moniker, winning the Grade 1 by an easy 16-lengths on heavy going. A spectacular achievement with the absence considered. Despite this easy success, Faugheen showed us that his age and time off the course had stripped him of some of his superstardom he once flaunted so brilliantly, as his form for the year after the Morginana win reading P261. Still a brilliant year by all accounts, two Grade 1 wins with one of them a stunning success in the Irish Stayers' Hurdle and a Grade 1 second, but a 6th in the Champion Hurdle was a disappointing result for the now 10-year-old and no one would have begrudged him his retirement at this point.

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But again he returned, for his 10/11-year-old season to try and add to that tally of nine Grade 1s. By this stage, the old boy who had bounced back from a two-year lay off was firmly a fan favourite, so seeing him fail to win a race for the first time in a season that year had all but swayed the public to call for his retirement. Second in the Morgiana, a horrible fall in the Irish Champion Hurdle (Which caused great fear at Leopardstown that day), third in the Stayers’ Hurdle, pulled up in the Aintree Hurdle. It just had not fallen for Faugheen and the fright he had given his thousands of fans when falling and pulling up was enough - Faugheen had to be retired. Nothing else to prove, deserves his time in the field etc. etc, all the usual stuff that I myself was guilty of saying a number of times.

So imagine the shock when, in October 2019, it was announced that 11 soon to be 12-year-old Faugheen was to embark on a Novice Chase career that season. A what? A Novice Chase career at age 11? It sounded absolutely bonkers, and was met with plenty of uproar too, had he not done enough?

Well clearly, no. See Faugheen is that sort of horse who no matter the challenge in front of him, or his ever increasing age, absolutely adored his job - and was bloody brilliant at it too. 

On the 16th November 2019, Faugheen made his seasonal reappearance after 226 days off the course to contest a Beginners Chase as the 8/11 favourite and looked immediately at home, winning by seven-and-a-half lengths. If it wasn’t for injury, maybe this was the Faugheen we were meant to see all those years ago, a chasing star as well as a master over hurdles.

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Grade 1 company awaited and of course he stepped up to the plate, beating the odds on favourite Samcro at Limerick to complete an unbelievable journey. A Grade 1 Novice Chase winner, 1752 days (Nearly 5 years) after winning the Champion Hurdle. Truly astonishing ability, class and longevity - and a real compliment to the maestro Mullins who stood by him all this time.

This wasn’t even to be the career highlight however, as he sent the Leopardstown crowd into chaos with a win at the Dublin Racing Festival (More on that in a minute) before we saw him for the final time finishing a brave third in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Festival behind Samcro and Melon, horses he was four years senior than. There was whispers he could have returned for more at the grand old age of 12-going-13, but Faugheen’s retirement was duly announced in May 2021 and he has gone to spend his days at the Irish National Stud. A warrior of a horse who left with nothing left to prove, Faugheen is an icon of National Hunt Racing and during his fruitful career reminded us every day why we so deeply love this game.

Most Iconic Performance

By wow factor, his Irish Champion Hurdle win in 2016 which made him the highest rated hurdler of the century is the most iconic, but in terms on popularity and quite simply pure unbridled joy, his Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase win at the Dublin Racing Festival takes the cake.

Facing six other rivals, all of whom he was older than by five years bar Easy Game, who was half his age, Faugheen showed us that age is purely just a number as he made his rivals look like the old men in a truly memorable performance. When he hit the front for the first time as they turned for home, it was like someone had dropped a spark into a box of fireworks as the crowd went into a pure joy driven craze. He was taken to the far side rail and although scrappy at his obstacle, cleared it and landed just ahead of stablemate Easy Game.

From here it was all about who was the most gutsy and who wanted it most - there was only ever going to be one winner of that. The Machine gave his absolute all in a nail-biting finish, and had everyone on edge from that final furlong to the finish, but just like he had done so many times before, stuck his neck out and gave his all to win it.

One of the finest moments in the Dublin Racing Festival’s history and one of the finest moments of Willie Mullins’ career. Faugheen was the stand out horse of the year in 2014/15 and once again, so many years later, was the standout horse in 2020 - truly unbelievable. 

Ranking so far:

 

10 - Native River

9 - Sea The Stars

8 - Tiger Roll

7 - Hurricane Fly

6 - Enable

5 - Sprinter Sacre

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