Ricci considering a switch to Ryanair Chase for Douvan
Gowran five-timer indicates Mullins’ team of 50-plus horse in good form for Cheltenham
Douvan: may be switched to Ryanair Chase from the Queen Mother Champion Chase – a decision will be made on Monday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Willie Mullins lost Cheltenham’s Leading Trainer Award to his great rival Gordon Elliott last year but Ireland’s champion appears to have once again slotted into his customary centre-stage festival role.
A superb 54-1 five-timer at Gowran on Saturday indicates Mullins’s team of 50- plus horses – including the favourites for the first two races tomorrow, Getabird and Footpad – are heading to Cheltenham in rare form.
However, a rabbit was pulled from the festival hat yesterday when one of Mullins’s most powerful owners, Rich Ricci, indicated a dramatic late switch to Thursday’s Ryanair chase is being considered for Douvan.
Whether Douvan will actually switch, or join his stable companion Min in the Queen Mother Champion Chase as originally planned, will finally be decided this morning.
“The Ryanair has cut up fairly badly and we just thought it was worth considering going a different route. I had a chat with Willie yesterday and we’re open to the idea. It’s no secret I like to split my horses – why fire two bullets at the same race if you don’t have to,” said Ricci.
“It would still be a big ask of Douvan but it’s certainly worth considering and we agreed we’d sleep on it and kick it around further,” he added.
Mullins’s Un De Sceaux drifted slightly as Ryanair favourite on the back of Ricci’s bulletin while Douvan, who hasn’t raced since suffering a pelvic injury in last year’s Champion Chase, was installed as a 5-2 shot by some firms for the longer race.
Ricci’s comments caught many by surprise, especially since the Ryanair option appeared to have been firmly ruled out by Mullins.
Quizzed about Douvan lining up for the Champion Chase, Mullins said last month: “We [Ricci] spoke about the possibility of running him and Min in the Queen Mother and we said it would be a nice problem to have if it comes around. To me the two of them are two-milers.”
Not ideal He also added: “I can’t see us putting Douvan in the Ryanair so it’s not ideal, and an owner would like to divide his horses, but sometimes it’s no harm having a reserve. That’s their trip and, to me, that’s what they should go for.”
Two years ago Vautour was controversially switched to the Ryanair after previous indications the ill-fated star would either run in the Gold Cup or not go to Cheltenham at all.
Ricci defended another potential Ryanair switch this time and said: “Things change. The Ryanair has cut up. There’s not going to be many runners at all I don’t think and it would be silly not to reconsider. We left the horses in the races and so many bookmakers are non-runner, no-bet.”
Yesterday’s final 48 hour declarations for Day One also saw Mullins declare Faugheen with first-time cheek-pieces for the Unibet Champion Hurdle in an attempt to help the horse return to the sort of form that saw him land the hurdling championship in 2015. The heavy odds-on favourite, and title holder, Buveur D’Air dominates the 13-strong field which sees both Mullins and Nicky Henderson saddle four runners each.
Ruby Walsh takes over from Paul Townend on Faugheen who returned from almost two years off through injury with a superb Morgiana Hurdle victory in November. He was subsequently pulled up at Leopardstown over Christmas and was then runner-up to Supasundae in the Irish Champion hurdle.
Mullins has also left Yorkhill, Melon and Wicklow Brave in the Champion Hurdle while Henderson’s Buveur D’Air will be joined by My Tent Or Yours and the outsiders, Charli Parcs and Verdana Blue. Mullins is a general 6-4 favourite to be leading trainer at Cheltenham for the sixth time in his career. The Irishman has saddled 54 festival winners in total.