Saturday 27 May 2017

Vincent Hogan: 'Movie Star' horse fluffs his lines

Trainer Willie Mullins. Photo: Sportsfile
Trainer Willie Mullins. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Rich Ricci got to the losers' enclosure well ahead of his diminished superstar and began pacing with the fluster of someone who'd left his house keys on a train.

Eyes hidden behind dark glasses, Ricci's gaze never rose higher than his shoes until Willie Mullins came striding through the gate. Two others quickly joined them and, for a time, it felt as if the story of the Champion Chase could have been crudely synopsised by a simple screengrab of these four solemn men in fedoras, lost deep in a grim forensic.

All over this fevered pocket of Gloucestershire, minds seemed paralysed by what had just been seen.

Special Tiara was being led down the chute to a cheering throng, but you had to think they weren't the whoops of people who'd made money. Over by the weigh-room, necks craned for a glimpse of the pale, pink silks now materialising by the small enclosure. Stone-faced, Ruby Walsh dismounted the brown gelding, entering immediate conclave with the fedoras.

And someone threw a bucket of water over Douvan.

The horse whose name was beginning to invoke (admittedly tremulous) comparison with gods of the game like Golden Miller and Mill House and Flyingbolt and - deep breath - Arkle even, had come home a dispirited seventh at the kind of price (2/9) you might attach to the chances of afternoon giving way to dusk.

Ruby Walsh and Douvan in the mix during the early stages of yesterday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase. Photo: PA
Ruby Walsh and Douvan in the mix during the early stages of yesterday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase. Photo: PA

Ricci's nerves had looked frayed long before the tape went up.

His horse, Livelovelaugh, was backed into 16/1 from 33/1 in the Neptune, but the owner could not bring himself to watch. He just paced the parade ring, back turned pointedly to the TV screen, as if to look might, somehow, condemn him to misfortune.

If he was like this at 1.30pm, how would Douvan's owner be two hours later?

He'd once said of the horse, "if he was human, he would be Cary Grant!" Trouble is, some comparisons end up self-fulfilling. Great horses are just as temperamental as movie stars and, often, every bit as hard to understand. Until now, that's never been the case with Douvan. They say in Mullins's yard that he's placid enough to be entrusted with the care of a child.

But his deportment changed yesterday. His jumping never looked better than erratic and, though he still led the chase of Special Tiara at the top of the hill, Mullins already knew that his star was hopelessly disoriented.

And the sight of him trailing meekly up the hill, Ruby wisely desisting from harsh coercion, seemed oddly emblematic of what is becoming a deeply trying Festival for a yard that has set upon this place like stormtroopers in recent seasons.

It is ten years since Mullins last left here winless, but with two blank days already down, the possibility of it happening again - a suggestion that would have had people slapping their sides Tuesday lunchtime - grows more credible. Un De Sceaux's starting price in today's Ryanair may give an indication of where public confidence lies, albeit last night's revelation that Douvan had been reported "lame behind" did, at least, offer a degree of explanation for his shock demise.

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And Mullins, to his immense credit, refused to turn cold and defensive afterwards under a naturally unsentimental media glare.

Others might have been walking around with a head full of ghosts, but that's just not his style.

"I'm only thinking maybe a couple of those big jumps that he put in early on, that he might have pulled something," he told us by the weigh-room. "A muscle or a ligament or something.

"To me, he was clearly not going well at the top of the hill. I'm assuming something happened him when he put in those huge jumps. I don't think he's ever done that before. And why he did that, I don't know. I would imagine we'll find a physical problem rather than anything else."

Walsh, he told us, had reported Douvan simply as "not moving well behind".

"He was just a bit gob-smacked I think," Mullins said of his champion jockey. "You know he didn't jump as well as he anticipated... well he was hoping he'd jump with his usual fluency. I think he probably pulled something, maybe a muscle or ligament. Hopefully it's only something that will come right straight away. I mean when I saw him doing those two over the first couple of fences I was thinking he's going to have to be a super horse to win this. Because you don't get away with that sort of jumping and win Champion Chases.

"You might win a beginners' chase or something like that, but not a champion class!"

Ungovernable hype attaches itself to the great horses and yesterday's 'Racing Post' had likened Douvan to "a rugged, handsome, bearded man among boys". It looked a clever line. Because that was the expectation. The presumption even. A coronation on four legs.

Did people get caught up in that kind of rhetoric?

"Oh we all do," reflected Mullins refreshingly. "I'm hoping he could be one of the best horses I've ever trained. Today was clearly not his run. We'll have to get him back on track if we can. But, you know, that's the way it is. What can I do? I'm like you, you know we're all disappointed that this happened. Now my main job is to find out what is wrong and how long it will take to fix."

And the broader picture of a week for the yard now threatening to prove threadbare.

"It is (frustrating)," he agreed. "It's disappointing but I don't think we were unlucky in any race yesterday. So I wasn't too worried about that. Today Bacardys almost getting taken down in the first is just the way things were and I don't think we were unlucky with the Coral Cup horses.

"That's what they are. They are what they are and there was nothing that was expecting to win. We were hoping but this fella is a big disappointment alright, yeah.

"I don't know the reason but when they jump like that they can injure themselves. That's a huge strain on a big horse of his size. He put in two or three of those and I'd say he must have done something. And it takes a lot out of a horse in the middle of a championship race."

"But look I am well used to dealing with that sort of thing. It's just probably not been of that level with that type of horse but that's the way it is. We'll just go back and find out what is wrong with him."

As the race spooled itself out, it slowly began to dawn on people that Special Tiara's front-running gallop was about to prove more than just a brave cameo. Henry de Bromhead arrived convinced that the improving ground might suit his 11/1 shot, having blamed himself for saddling him to a fifth-place finish here in January behind Un De Sceaux when the going was, at best, "tacky".

Drying

Under a drying sun, De Bromhead now promised something better. He just presumed they were racing for a minor placing.

"The expectation was to get placed, so this is different gravy," he told us after. "I was waiting for Douvan but, when I saw him back-pedal, it was all about whether we'd get home.

"He (Special Tiara) has a funny way of racing, but he jumped better today than he's ever jumped. I was surprised he got such a nice lead at the top of the hill, then Noel (Fehily) got a lovely jump at the third last. But it was very nerve-wracking. I probably made a fool of myself after the last!"

For Fehily, who rides the favourite UknowwhatImeanharry in today's Stayers' Hurdle, the expectation of being stalked by Douvan just never materialised.

"As we were going downhill, I had a little look to see where he was. When he wasn't there, I felt we had a chance." Not a second earlier.

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