WILLIE Mullins expects “huge improvement” from Faugheen in the williamhill.com Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
A stunning winner at Cheltenham and Punchestown in the spring as a novice, the six-year-old leapt to the head of ante-post lists for next year’s Champion Hurdle with a brilliant return to action in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot last month.
He will return to Grade One level on December 26 and Ireland’s champion trainer believes his charge will strip much fitter with a comeback run under his belt.
Mullins said: “There must be huge improvement in Faugheen as he was pretty fat going to Ascot.
“Last season Faugheen was fit and scrawny and I was wondering where the improvement was coming from, but he must have come back in from grass 100 weight heavier.”
Mullins does not expect the step up to three miles to trouble Champagne Fever in the William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
A dual Cheltenham Festival winner, having claimed the Champion Bumper and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle over two miles, the flying grey will be tackling the longer distance for the first time over the Festive period.
The seven-year-old made an excellent start to the new campaign with an authoritative victory in the Clonmel Oil Chase over an intermediate trip of two and a half miles.
Mullins said: “Champagne Fever is bred to get three miles plus, so I don’t see the trip being an issue.”
Champagne Fever is the general second favourite for the King George, but Mullins accepts Kempton regular Florida Pearl, who won the King George in 2001, was a more potent challenger.
He said: “Champagne has never won at Christmas.
“He was beaten in a bumper when we thought he was a certainty and he fell last year – maybe it’s not his time of year.
“I saw some statistics that King George winners needed to have the other day.
“I think there were 11 (statistics) and he only qualified on three of them.
“I was certainly more confident going over with Florida Pearl.
“He appears to have a fair hill to climb.”
Mullins also trains Un De Sceaux whose jockey Ruby Walsh expects him to run at Fairyhouse on Saturday rather than make the trip across the Irish Sea to Haydock.
The exciting six-year-old holds an entry in a novice chase on Merseyside, but his regular jockey believes trainer Willie Mullins will keep him closer to home on the same afternoon.
Walsh said: “I’m expecting Un De Sceaux to run at Fairyhouse on Saturday in the two-mile beginners’ chase, where hopefully he can make a winning return.
“Fairyhouse is only an hour and a half away, while Haydock is a lot further.
“So once there’s no risk to racing at the Meath track you can take it he’ll run there.”
Un De Sceaux went unbeaten in seven starts over hurdles since arriving from France, but he made an inauspicious start over fences at Thurles last month when he fell at the third-last.