Exciting Douvan 'in the form of his life'
Question marks remain over whether Willie Mullins' star chaser Douvan can bounce back to his best in Wednesday's Champion Chase but work rider Holly Conte insists he's "in the form of his life" ahead of his Cheltenham bid.
Unbeaten in 13 starts for Mullins before coming home lame in last year's Champion Chase, Douvan faces a mammoth task to turn over Nicky Henderson's hot favourite Altior (4/6), but Conte believes he's performing better than ever on the Closutton gallops.
Having worked with Henderson for 13 years - where she rode daily work on Grade One winners Simonsig and Oscar Whisky among many others - she knows a thing or two about good horses and will be hoping to get one over on her old boss at the Cotswolds.
"It was a surprise to everybody because he was ready to run before the Tingle Creek in December and we were looking forward to that run because he was in such good form given the disappointment at Cheltenham last year," the Southampton native said.
"Two days before it became apparent that he wasn't going to go to Sandown and was ruled out for the season so it was a big shock to come back in January and he feels brilliant now. I think he's in the form of his life."
Conte, married to French man Vincent (who also works in Closutton), was the "lucky replacement" when Gail Carlisle left the Mullins yard, hopes the brilliant eight-year-old comes through his final preparations in one piece.
"It's going to be tough to be first time out at Cheltenham but I'm just hoping he gets there in one piece after a couple of hard pieces of work.
" I wake up excited to ride him every day. I worked him last year all the time and he's working a lot better this year, even before when he was winning, he feels better now."
Douvan (7/2) is one of three possibilities in the race for Mullins after the champion trainer also left another Rich Ricci-owned runner Min (11/4) in at the six-day forfeit stage but Un De Sceaux (8/1) is unlikely to run with a back-to-back Ryanair Chase bid his target.
Leading Champion Bumper fancy Hollowgraphic, previously the 6/1 favourite, is the big absentee from the Champion Bumper with Mullins ruling him out of the Grade One event after being unhappy following his most recent gallop.
Elsewhere, Kim Bailey will skip the Festival with Vinndication - which was as short as 10/1 for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle on Wednesday - with the unbeaten five-year-old put away for the rest of the season with his long-term future in mind.
"He's just a bit weak and immature and I just felt taking him to Cheltenham would be a bit tough on him at this stage of his career. I would imagine that he'll more than likely go novice chasing," Bailey said.
Meanwhile, TG4's annual Cheltenham Festival preview - featuring stable tours with leading trainers Mullins, Henderson and Gordon Elliott - airs tonight at 8.30.