Rich Ricci looking for a chink of light after a dark period
Colourful American hoping Douvan and Faugheen can recapture former glory
Getabird: will carry the colours of Ricci’s wife Susannah as a heavy favourite for the Supreme Novices Hurdle (1.30). Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Pitch Rich Ricci the anodyne proposition that this season has been character building and the American wastes no time smacking it out of the ballpark.
“Disastrous is the word that comes to mind,” he says. “If you told me last year that this year would be even worse, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Last year, one of the sport’s biggest hitters arrived at the festival armed with an overwhelming festival banker, Douvan, and a Gold Cup favourite in Djakadam, yet desperately hoping for a change of fortune.
Earlier that season, the outstanding Vautour had suffered fatal injuries in a paddock accident. The 2016 Champion Hurdle Annie Power was heading towards retirement. The 2015 champion, Faugheen, was still on the injury list.
That Ricci could still muster a strong team testified to the depth of his resources. However by the end of the festival, Djakadam had again found the Gold Cup challenge too much and Douvan was on the injury-list as well.
All things are relative of course. Let’s Dance did win the mares novice hurdle, continuing Ricci’s six-year streak of having at least one festival success.
But for the man who cuts one of the most distinctive figures in National Hunt racing, and whose colours have been pivotal to Willie Mullins’s Cheltenham hegemony, it was hard to take solace in a single Grade Two when just the previous year four of his five victories had been at Grade One level.
The racing cycle always encourages hope however. Cut to the autumn and the former chief executive of Barclays Corporate and Investment Bank hoped to see established stars return with investment in more young talent paying off too.
Faugheen was as spectacular in winning the Morgiana as Douvan appeared to be in his homework. But then physical problems interrupted the latter’s campaign while Faugheen’s rejuvenation came to a spectacular halt when pulled up at Christmas.
Both return to try to win at the festival for a third time and if there’s a sense of the venerable ‘they-never-come back’ adage about them their owner stresses hope springs eternal before 1.30 on Tuesday afternoon.
After all that’s when Getabird will carry the colours of Ricci’s wife Susannah as a heavy favourite for the Supreme Novices Hurdle.
Day one highlights
Faugheen’s clash of the champions with Buveur D’air a couple of hours later and Benie Des Deux taking on Apple’s Jade in the OLBG will also be among the Day One highlights.
On Wednesday, both Douvan and Min tackle Altior in the Champion Chase while Djakadam is set for a fourth attempt on the Gold Cup on Friday.
There’s a lot to look forward to and it’s a scenario most everyone else can only envy. But it doesn’t stop Ricci – who has copped substantial flak over indicating Douvan could switch to the Ryanair only to be declared for the Champion Chase after all – feeling frustrated at his overall fortunes.
“We seem to have had a combination of hard luck, not had very good purchases of horses and they’ve been out very late so it has been quite frustrating this season.
“Injuries are the worst part. We haven’t seen Douvan yet and there have been a lot of other setbacks with younger horses. Vroum Vroum Mag is retired.
“We still have some of the big names going to Cheltenham but we don’t seem to have the same cadre of really promising younger horses coming along. This was the biggest novice hurdle team we’ve ever had and they haven’t really panned out,” he says.
“I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for the game. It’s been dented, but I’ve haven’t lost it. I’ve bought some for next year already. And we’ve had a lot of success over 12 years so you’ve got to look at the results of the last two years in the round. And a series of results can turn it around,” Ricci adds.
A series of positive Cheltenham results would certainly do just that and getting off the mark straight away would be perfect.
“Getabird is carrying the flag for us this year in terms of what we might be able to do. People had him down as one that would be better at intermediate or longer trips but he showed the last day he’s got a turn of foot,” says his owner.
The Champion Hurdle is today’s centrepiece however and a mix of sentiment and uncertainty surrounds Faugheen. That Christmas flop was followed by a better effort when runner-up in the Irish Champion Hurdle. It was nothing like his glorious pomp however.
“It was hard to watch at Christmas. He ran better the last day. Maybe it’s not that they don’t come back but that they’re just getting older and Faugheen is ten now.
“Post-Christmas you wouldn’t have wanted to be a rock at Willie’s place because every one was turned over and checked and they still couldn’t explain it. Willie’s horses generally were a little below form at the time so we hope it was a low-grade problem.
“I’m hoping Douvan comes back. The way they were talking before the Tingle Creek was that he was never better and I’m happy he can come back. I’m hoping the other big names can get back to themselves too.
“You do get frustrated because the injuries they’ve had maybe means they didn’t get their full crack at the whip,” Ricci adds.
The American, based in Kent, who races primarily in Ireland famously finds it difficult to watch his horses race, often turning his back and relying on the commentary. Whichever way he looks what he will really hope to see this week though is a change of luck.