Special Tiara takes Queen Mother as Douvan’s crown slips
Willie Mullins confirmed that his horse was found to be lame behind following race
Special Tiara ridden by Noel Fehily jumps the last before going on to win the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase during Ladies Day at Cheltenham. Photograph: Harry Trump/Getty Images
If adversity is the fiercest test of mettle then Willie Mullins’s equanimity after Douvan’s shock Queen Mother Champion Chase defeat behind Special Tiara at Cheltenham on Wednesday reflects as well on Ireland’s most successful ever festival trainer as any of his winners.
Having failed to score up to the day two feature, even this arch racing realist must have presumed the 2-9 favourite – and the horse he labelled the best he’s ever had – would finally get him off the mark this week.
Instead, Douvan seemed determined to swap his previous Rolls Royce reliability for some wildly cavalier jumping that left the packed stands gasping.
If Mullins later in the day was able to report with some relief that he found Douvan to be lame behind, it still couldn’t banish one of the most anti-climactic races Cheltenham has known in a long time.
In the circumstances, focusing on the seventh horse home rather than the gallant Special Tiara was as inevitable as it was unfair to the winner’s spectacularly in-form jockey Noel Fehily, who was adding to Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle success on Buveur D’Air.
But even in his own joy, perhaps Special Tiara’s trainer Henry De Bromhead had more of an inkling than most about Mullins’s task in trying to contain disappointment while articulating for a ravenous media eager to pick over the detritus of shattered championship dreams.
De Bromhead earned massive kudos for his dignified response to his former two mile champion, Sizing Europe, losing out on the chance to properly defend his title in 2012 due to a cock-up over the bypassing of the final fence.
That five years later the 11-1 Special Tiara emerged best in a dramatic finish with Fox Norton – who carried the Sizing Europe colours of Alan Potts, an owner who split with De Bromhead last year – will have only made the victory sweeter.
“Douvan is a super horse and I don’t know what happened today. But our horse has benefited. We came hoping to pick up some place money but you never what can happen in a horse race,” he beamed. It was in stark contrast to the Douvan camp.
Ruby Walsh was “gobsmacked” at how the hottest favourite of the entire festival had been left floundering from the third last. Mullins however reckoned the rot had set in much earlier after at least three jumps that had Douvan stretching every sinew to make the other side.
“You can’t jump like that in a race like this around here. He’s never done anything like it before and today was clearly not his run. When they jump like that they can injure themselves. It’s a huge strain and he’s a big horse,” he said.
Besieged by microphones and recorders, Mullins patiently outlined his disappointment but offered no excuses in the overall contest of how his festival team have performed, pointing out that Douvan had been the real disappointment, over two blank days.
“Ruby said he wasn’t moving well behind,” he shrugged. “I’m well used to dealing with the frustration of racing, if not quite at this level, and with this type of horse. But that’s just the way it is.”
The way it is with Fehily right now is that his luck is in. He has the hot Stayers’ Hurdle favourite Unowhatimeanharry to look forward to in Thursday’s feature and could come in for a Gold Cup ride for JP McManus on Friday after it was confirmed on Wednesday night that Mark Walsh fractured a fibula in a first race fall from Consul De Thaix – the horse sustaining fatal injuries in the fall.
“I’ve won the race I’ve always wanted to win,” said Fehily. “It’s the best speed race over fences and it’s great to have on the CV. And the horse deserved it. On that there was unanimity.