Saturday 19 January 2019

Comeback kids Walsh and Douvan out to defy logic

David Mullins and Ruby Walsh standing out of the saddle on Yorkhill (L) and Faugheen respectively ahead of the Cheltenham Festival at Prestbury Park. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Mullins and Ruby Walsh standing out of the saddle on Yorkhill (L) and Faugheen respectively ahead of the Cheltenham Festival at Prestbury Park. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

There aren't too many disciplines where two of the chief protagonists could return from lengthy lay-offs and still be favoured to prevail under the most competitive scrutiny possible, but that's the fate of Ruby Walsh and Douvan this week at Cheltenham.

With just two rides under his belt - one of which won - since breaking his leg in a horrible fall last November, the most successful jockey in Festival history bids to add to his remarkable haul of 56 victories with a stellar book of rides for his boss Willie Mullins.

Last week, the 38-year-old declared that he would gladly go to the Festival with no competitive race under his belt in 115 days but despite his mastery around the unique undulations of the Cotswolds, there must be doubts about his race sharpness.

His cosy victory aboard Lareena at Thurles last Thursday cannot mask the fact that the Kildare pilot is stepping into the most intensive four days of jumps racing with minimal preparation, albeit muscle memory from more than 20 years in the saddle.

There are very few sports where one of its finest athletes could compete at elite level lacking match fitness and given the physical and mental demands of race riding, signs of ring rust could naturally be evident at various junctures this week.

If he has the ability to come in from the cold and be at his best, it would be a remarkable feat few others could contemplate but Walsh has previous form in this regard having steered a hat-trick of opening-day winners after recovering from a similar injury before the 2011 Festival.

Walsh is adamant that sharpness is more mental than physical and that the horse does the work but with Douvan off the race track since coming home lame in last year's Champion Chase when 2/9 favourite, question marks also linger about one of the most hyped steeplechasers in recent memory.

Mullins has waxed lyrical about Douvan since he sauntered into his Closutton yard in the autumn of 2014 and considering he is not one for hyperbole, to call Douvan "special" and "one of the best I've ever had" means he clearly holds a place in his heart.

There's no doubting his brilliance but what he has produced at the Cotswolds hasn't lived up to his five-star billing just yet and to do what he is trying to do in tomorrow's Champion Chase is unheard of.

While Mullins did unleash his great mare Quevega to win at the Festival five times without a previous run that season, this is uncharted water in a hot Grade One and he may sink or swim.

Only 48 hours ago, his owner Rich Ricci outlined a plan to take on stable-mate Un De Sceaux and send Min into battle against Nicky Henderson's Altior but what a difference a day makes.

Walsh is now aboard Douvan with Paul Townend picking up a plum ride on Min - the forgotten horse of the race - while question marks hang over Altior after the Seven Barrows trainer revealed he was lame yesterday morning.

If Altior doesn't turn up, it would normally be a penalty kick for Douvan but on this occasion it would be one where the odds are stacked against the taker, the eight-year-old having not jumped a fence since a schooling session in November, and not competitively in 12 months.

Should Mullins produce him to win tomorrow's feature it will be one of his greatest training performances. As the aptly-named Kaiser Chiefs song 'Ruby' has blared over the Cheltenham tannoy numerous times, "Let it never be said, the romance is dead". This would be a fairytale.


Punters will be hoping for a 'Ruby Tuesday' today with a comeback of a different kind when 2015 Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen takes on reigning champion Buveur D'Air with the 'Machine' fitted with first-time cheekpieces in the hope of getting his engine purring once again.

At 10, the deck is stacked against him after two off-colour displays but the dual Festival scorer may come to life again at the Gloucestershire track and those high-profile battles will go some way to deciding the home of the Irish Independent Leading Trainer award which looks set to be duked out by Henderson, reigning champion Elliott and the master of Closutton.

The same colours hold a leading chance in the opener with the Mullins/Walsh/Ricci axis represented by hot favourite Getabird, which will revel in the softer ground with Walsh riding the six-year-old for the first time.

Walsh then gets the leg up on Footpad in the Arkle but with his two mounts last week confined to hurdles, it will be his first time to jump a fence in public since November as he bids to overcome another obstacle on the game's biggest stage.

So many questions to be answered as racing's biggest names put their reputations on the line on the grandest stage. Buckle up, it could be a wet and bumpy ride.

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