Donn's Articles » Douvan
Douvan makes his seasonal debut today in the Kerry Group Hilly Way Chase at Cork, and that is exciting.
Douvan has been exciting for a while now. He probably didn’t excite too many people when he made his debut in a two-mile hurdle at the racecourse just outside the town of Saint-Malo on the north coast of Brittany in May 2014. The record book says that he finished second that day, five lengths behind Konig Dax. The record book also says that he has not been beaten since.
He didn’t excite many either when he won a two-mile hurdle at Compiegne on his second run, but he did excite Pierre Boulard, and that excited Willie Mullins.
Pierre Boulard is the French connection, he is the man who scours the French provinces for Mullins in search of the Douvans and the Un De Sceauxs and the Quevegas that light up the Irish and British National Hunt scene.
It all began with Quevega. Actually, it all began with Dawn Run. Boulard met Paddy Mullins for the first time when the legendary trainer brought Dawn Run to France for the French Champion Hurdle, and he went back to work for him for a year, as pupil assistant. That was in 1985/86, the year that Dawn Run won the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Boulard had bought Quevega for her owners as a two-year-old and, after the mare had won three bumpers in France in 2007, he heard that she was for sale again, so he contacted Willie Mullins. And so it began.
Douvan must have excited the Closutton team too in his slower paces at home because, when he made his debut in Ireland, in a novices’ hurdle at Gowran Park in November 2014, he was sent off the odds-on favourite. He won like an odds-on favourite should win too, by 12 lengths, Paul Townend almost motionless on his back.
“He’s a nice big horse,” said Willie Mullins afterwards. “He’s a chaser down the line. He could be anything.”
The Walk In The Park gelding progressed along the road to being anything. Sent off the long odds-on favourite for the Moscow Flyer Hurdle at Punchestown in January 2015, with Ruby Walsh on board for the first time, he again won as easily as he liked.
That was just his second run in Ireland, we were just getting to know him, but slowly the realisation was dawning that we could be witnessing a special racehorse. The ease with which he was doing everything on the racecourse, his fluency over his hurdles, the effortlessness with which he travelled, his gears, the near-reverence with which Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh spoke of him.
“He just does things very easily,” said Mullins after that Moscow Flyer Hurdle. “I don’t think it matters to him what way a race is run. Ground, trip, tactics, I don’t think anything would bother him. He does everything right. He’ll go straight to Cheltenham now. It doesn’t matter when the race is. I wouldn’t mind if it was tomorrow.”
The race – the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – was two months later but, Mullins was right, it didn’t matter. He danced in in the curtain-raiser to the 2015 Cheltenham Festival, and Mullins looked to the future.
“He looks every inch a chaser,” he said. “He’s huge, he’s got huge scope. He will come back a really well-muscled horse next season.”
That chasing career got off to a nice start at Navan last November when, but for a slight scare at the final fence, he was silky smooth in winning his beginnners’ chase. Then he went to Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival for the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase and, with Ruby Walsh at Kempton to ride Vautour in the King George and Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle, Patrick Mullins was entrusted with the responsibility of Douvan.
The plan was to take a lead from confirmed front-runner Ttebbob but, in truth, nothing could lead Douvan. Nothing could go fast enough. Patrick Mullins just let him stride out and he went further and further clear.
“That’s one of the best thrills I have ever had,” said the amateur rider afterwards. “He was magnificent.”
Douvan continued to be magnificent. He won the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown last January, then won the Arkle at Cheltenham, then won at Aintree, then won at Punchestown. It takes a special horse to win at all three spring festivals, but Douvan looked as good at Punchestown as he looked at Aintree and Cheltenham. Once again, there were musings on what the future might hold.
“He’s special,” said Mullins, “so where do you go next year? The Champion Chase looks like the obvious race, but he stays as well and he settles, he could be a Gold Cup horse.”
There’s the ‘could be anything’ theme again. There is still no telling what Douvan could be, how versatile he could be, how good he could be. You only get to know the limit of your ability when you get beaten, when you can go no higher, and Douvan has never been beaten since he has arrived in Ireland. We still don’t know how good he is.
It is true that the Champion Chase is the logical target for him this season, he was the champion novice over two miles last season, so the Champion Chase is the natural progression. Indeed, he has never raced over a distance in excess of two miles and one furlong in his life.
However, there is precedent for Arkle horses stepping up in trip for the Gold Cup. Kicking King was second in the Arkle the year before his Gold Cup win, War Of Attrition was seventh in the Arkle the year before his. Also, Best Mate would have been favourite for the Arkle the year before his first Gold Cup win, and Kauto Star fell in the Champion Chase the year before his first.
Of course, both Best Mate and Kauto Star were special. Best Mate won three Gold Cups, and Kauto Star brought talent and versatility to a whole new level. He had the speed to win two Tingle Creek Chases over two miles, he had the pace to win five King Georges over three miles and he had the stamina to win two Gold Cups over three and a quarter miles. He was a horse of a lifetime.
But Douvan is also a special talent. He is odds-on favourite for the Champion Chase, but he is also high in the betting for the King George and the Gold Cup. All things being equal, he could go anywhere, and he embarks on the road to that destination at Cork today.
© The Sunday Times, 11th December 2016