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Douvan day

It is a big day for Douvan today.  Every day that Douvan runs is a big day.  It’s another D-Day.  Another Douvan Day.

When Douvan races, expectation levels are high, victory is demanded.  And when expectation levels are high, the magnitude of the potential downside is far greater than the magnitude of the potential upside.  

The prohibitive odds on offer about Douvan winning the BoyleSports Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown today tell you that anything less than an easy victory will be disappointing.  Like when you take a 21-yard free, the expectation is that you will score.

When you risk your Ace, you expect to win the trick.  You don’t want to blow your Ace on a trick that you do not win.

And Douvan is an Ace.  He is the Ace.  He has never lost since he joined Willie Mullins in the summer of 2014.  He has raced in four hurdle races and in eight chases since then, and he has won all 12 races. 

He has won eight times at the highest level, eight Grade 1 races.  He has bagged a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, an Irish Arkle, an Arkle, a Maghull Chase, a Ryanair Novice Chase and, in truth, he has never really looked likely to lose.  And of the 12 times that he has raced since his arrival in Ireland, he has been sent off at odds-on on 11 occasions.  There’s your expectation level there.  There’s your Ace.

And your Ace takes on a heightened level of importance when you have lost your Queen and when you haven’t played your King in a while.  It was a blow to Willie Mullins’ Cheltenham team when Annie Power was withdrawn from it last week.  The ligaments in her knee would take between six and nine weeks to heal, the trainer told us.  She might get back in time for Punchestown at the end of April, but Cheltenham was definitely out.

Then a slight setback to Faugheen meant that plans for his return in last Sunday’s BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle had to be shelved.  It was only a minor setback, he just tweaked a muscle behind, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. 

It was frustrating, the Germany gelding was all set to run, he was among the final declarations on Friday morning for the race, but he had to be scratched on Saturday afternoon.  It meant that Susannah Ricci’s horse did not get the chance to defend his Irish Champion Hurdle title.  As importantly, it means that Faugheen has not raced in over a year, and that there is not enough time now for him to have a prep race before Cheltenham.

Consequently, when he lines up in the Champion Hurdle on 14th March, all things being equal, he will not have had a race in 415 days, he will not have run since he won the Irish Champion Hurdle in January 2016.

On the negative side, it is a massive ask for any horse to win any race at the Cheltenham Festival on the back of such an absence.  On the positive side, he is trained by Willie Mullins.

Mullins regularly took Quevega to Cheltenham for her seasonal debut and won the Mares’ Hurdle.  We rarely saw the Robin Des Champs mare between Punchestown in April and Cheltenham the following March.  Six times she won the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, and five times she was racing for the first time since the previous spring.

The champion trainer also took Annie Power to Cheltenham in March 2015 for her seasonal debut, and she would have won the Mares’ Hurdle doing handsprings had she not come down at the final flight.  Of course, the Champion Hurdle is a step up from the Mares’ Hurdle, but if you were to choose one man to whom to entrust the arduous Faugheen task, you would choose Willie Mullins.

Min also missed his intended engagement at Leopardstown last Sunday, he was all set for the Frank Ward Solicitors Irish Arkle when he banged his knee.  Again, as with Faugheen, it wasn’t serious, it was just bad timing.  He remains on track for the Arkle at Cheltenham.

There were lots of positives too for Mullins last weekend.  Un De Sceaux put up an impressive performance to win the re-scheduled Grade 1 Clarence House Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday, Melon lived up to his tall reputation when he danced away with the opening maiden hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday, Let’s Dance was impressive in winning the Grade 2 novices’ hurdle, Royal Caviar ran a cracking race in the Grade 1 Irish Arkle, Footpad was only beaten a length in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

It has been an interesting season so far for Mullins, no question.  Yet despite the sad losses of Vautour and Avant Tout earlier in the season, and the headline-grabbing loss of the Gigginstown House horses, he still has a formidable team for the Cheltenham Festival. 

Of the 14 Grade 1 races at this year’s Festival, Mullins is responsible for the ante post favourite in seven of them, and he has the second or third favourite in five others.  He still holds the strongest hand. 

He plays his Ace today.

© The Sunday Times, 5th February 2017