Champion Chase merely another step for dominant Douvan
Bigger picture sees Mullins superstar following in odds-on footsteps of Flyingbolt
Unbeaten Douvan ridden by Ruby Walsh jumps the last to win The BoyleSports Tied Cottage Steeplechase at Punchestown in February. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Perhaps for the first time in over half a century the phenomenon that is Douvan could reduce one of Cheltenham’s championship races to the status of stepping stone.
If the festival is supposed to represent competition at its most intense then Wednesday’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase is instead widely presumed to be little more than an aesthetic exercise in appreciating the most exciting horse in training.
It’s a contradiction of what Cheltenham is supposed to be about, and perhaps a worrying reflection of how too many races threaten to spoil the festival’s competitive broth.
The one horse that might make a race of it with the raging long odds-on favourite is his stable companion Un De Sceaux who, not unreasonably, is availing of a less thankless option in the following day’s Ryanair.
And in a sport where disaster lurks just over the top of the next fence there is an obvious danger in presumption. There’s even a view that Douvan’s last two festival victories have revealed a possible dislike for Cheltenham’s singular contours.
But everything we’ve seen of Willie Mullins’s remarkable chaser indicates everything else in the field for the two-mile crown is racing for second. The good thing is that as aesthetic prospects go it doesn’t get much better than this.
Unbeaten in 13 runs for Mullins, and juggling between swagger and serenity throughout, Douvan hasn’t come close to being tested for mettle so far, and on all evidence to date it’s not going to happen this time either.
Instead if everything goes to expectations, the strapping seven year old will emerge from this championship with everyone trying to put in context the potential still lurking within and what it might ultimately achieve.
Not since the legendary Flyingbolt won the Champion Chase in 1966, and set the racing world ablaze with speculation about what might happen if or when he clashed with his stable companion Arkle, can one of the festival’s top events have been so consumed in a bigger picture.
Flyingbolt was the shortest priced Champion Chase winner ever at 1-5. Special Tiara and God’s Own are Grade One winners in their own right but some major punters are likely to seriously consider a similar price about Douvan beating them as value.
If that’s the sort of speculation that has Willie Mullins crossing his fingers and touching wood, then it’s worth pointing out how this particular horse has even got under the skin of the sport’s top professional.
Mullins might regret describing Douvan as the best he’s had during his novice days. He has even attempted to backtrack a little on that by pointing to Hurricane Fly’s outstanding Grade One record. But even he must suspect the possibilities with this horse are boundless.
“The bar keeps rising and he keeps meeting it,” Mullins said. “But you have to win your championship races. He has to win the Champion Chase. I don’t want to think beyond that.”
Such professional perspective is only to be expected but it won’t stop everyone else filling the speculative gap about what Douvan might achieve in future, and possibly over longer trips.
However evoking Flyingbolt introduces an automatic note of caution, contrasting the fragility of these animals and the hopes invested in them.
Just a day after his Champion Chase saunter, Flyingbolt lined up for the Champion Hurdle and found only Salmon Spray too good. A month later his incredible versatility was illustrated by carrying 12.7 to victory in the Irish Grand National.
The world was his oyster, and then, turned out for grass that summer, far from the dangers of the track, he contracted brucellosis from some cattle and was never the same again.
Such history will seem superfluous amidst the tumult of Cheltenham’s Day Two but the fact that mentioning Douvan’s name in the same context as the benchmark horses of the sport indicates the massed stands will be hushed with expectation come 3.30.
1: Douvan. 2: Special Tiara 3: God’s Own