Douvan, Gail Carlisle and the moulding of a superstar
Ex-work rider won’t be the last to be blown away by horse, but she will always be the first
Gail Carlisle riding Douvan on the gallops at Cheltenham racecourse last year. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Gail Carlisle’s first impression of Douvan when she arrived at Willie Mullins’s wasn’t positive. He was “a big oversized baby”. And then she rode the baby and everything changed. “Straight away I said this is an aeroplane. It was just a canter but he felt like nothing I’d sat on before.”
Carlisle won’t be the last to get blown away by Douvan. But she will always be the first.
Even to someone who was head woman at Mullins’s yard – looking after a succession of stars topped by Hurricane Fly – there has always been something different about Wednesday’s overwhelming Queen Mother Champion Chase favourite.
Equine paragons are rare but Douvan appears to be one. Unbeaten in 13 starts for Mullins, and never put under serious pressure to win any of them, there is an excitement about this horse which requires comparison to legendary names of the past to be valid.
Tony McCoy reckons he’s a very special talent. Mullins reckons he could be the best he’s ever had through his hands.
Owner Rich Ricci once eulogised about Douvan. “He is so elegant and such a wonderful mover. If he was human, he would be Cary Grant. He does things effortlessly.”
And on top of all that, apparently the horse is a bit of a sweetheart to boot.
“You could put your five-year-old niece or nephew on his back,” Carlisle says. “He’s just got a wonderful nature, so calm. And he loves attention, which is the complete opposite of ‘The Fly’. He was all ‘don’t annoy me – stop making a fuss.’ Douvan’s the complete opposite.”
The woman originally from Ballynahinch in Co Down doesn’t seem a fan of fuss herself. But her association with Hurricane Fly in particular meant her decision to quit the day-to-day grind of stable life became a focus of some attention last August.
She was after all turning her back on the daily pleasure of riding out the most exciting horse in the sport. If she’s wracked with regret about that, she doesn’t let on.
“I had always wanted to do more travelling, go to America for instance. So when ‘The Fly’ was retired, in my head I thought it was time to go and do stuff I’d hadn’t the chance to do before.
“And I thought if Douvan has the same longevity as ‘The Fly’ I’ll never get to go anywhere!” she laughs, well aware of the irony that rather than roaming the world she now works just up the road in the offices of Mullins’s vet in Gowran.
“It’s office-based and there’s more time off which ironically I seem to spend going racing at the weekend so I see everyone all the time,” says Carlisle, who went to see Douvan run at Leopardstown over Christmas.
It was there that Mullins revealed the vital but often unspoken role played by those who ride out horses every morning.
Holly Conte inherited the most coveted morning spin in racing and Douvan’s first few bits of work this season didn’t impress his rather worried trainer.
“Holly rode him differently than Gail,” Mullins recalled. “I asked Holly to talk to Gail about him and she did, and thankfully things just improved from there.” Carlisle wasn’t surprised at the little hiccup.
“Everyone needs to get to know each other and it takes a bit of time. Douvan is so laid back and does everything so easy that you can wonder if you need to do anything on him.
“Holly’s a great rider, calm and quiet, but she had the pressure of Douvan now, not knowing if this was how he always was: whereas I started on him and it was all I knew. I told her everything I could but she had to find out for herself,” she says.
The intriguing part for race fans is that everyone is still finding out about Douvan and his capabilities, to the extent that many are taking another easy victory as read and already thinking to the longer term and what he might achieve over further than two miles.
“In time if they wanted to go out in trip with him I’m sure they could as he’s so relaxed and does everything so easy,” says the woman who knows Douvan better than most. “But everything seems to be working at two miles and why change something when it’s not broken?”
Carlisle has been debating whether or not to go to watch her former charge at Cheltenham this year and experience the festival as a break rather than work, although old habits die hard.
“I don’t think it will be too relaxing. I’d probably end up in the yard giving them a hand with something,” she says.
Come 3.30 there will be nothing relaxed about the woman who has helped mould a superstar.