Wednesday 13 December 2017

Hats off to the equine heroes as jingoism takes a back seat for Festival's survival of the fittest

Willie Mullins is of the opinion that Douvan is the best he has ever trained (SPORTSFILE )
Willie Mullins is of the opinion that Douvan is the best he has ever trained (SPORTSFILE )
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The first thing Willie Mullins does every morning in his yard of stars is to check on Douvan. To see how he has taken the night and is he alright.

Horses' legs are as brittle as fine porcelain. All that weight on pins as thin and narrow as the leg of a table. Willie worries. You could hardly call him Willie The Worrier, if you knew him. Mullins is a very courteous talkative and phlegmatic man. He is approachable, like most racing people. And possesses not an ounce of ego.

There though outside the stable door, his heart must beat faster for his stable star. Willie, you see, is of the opinion that Douvan is the best he has ever trained.

Which is saying something.

Ted Walsh has been known to say on occasion "racehorses are not pets." Horses are athletes and trainers will not get them fit unless they are jumped and galloped.

Cheltenham is a savage test. Sandra Hughes, one of our finest trainers, who has two runners at the Festival, says: "You need a really tough horse to win at Cheltenham."

The climb goes on forever. It's not the steepness of the climb up the hill at Cheltenham so much as the length of it. And only the fittest survive. There's heart needed too.

A horse lacking in motivation will inevitably get found out. Horses can win all around them on the flatter tracks like Kempton, but here in this place that last couple of furlongs is really a furlong longer than anywhere else. And when your horse begins to empty it's all downhill.

Willie Mullins has lost a number of Cheltenham certainties to injury. Faugheen, the reigning champion hurdler, is out. There will be no two in a row.


Ruby Walsh described the injury in these stark terms: "It's like someone ripping the ace out of the pack and handing you the rest of the cards, that's what it is."

I know what you're thinking now. No one has died and horses aren't humans. We know that, but Faugheen is a special horse. He only needed to show up to win the Champion Hurdle.

There's a good few years left in Ruby but this was to be the middle leg of three in a row or maybe even the halfway point of four in a row.

There was no horse to match Faugheen unless it was decided to send Douvan back hurdling.

Just to get a horse to Cheltenham in one piece is a magnificent achievement in itself.

The last time I called to see Michael Winters he described the journey from conception to birth.

"From the very minute the mare is mated to the stallion, the family planning is all about getting one good enough to run at Cheltenham. Just to run at Cheltenham. Not even win. Winning is a bonus.

"Then when the foal comes along and he's staggering around like as if he's walking on top of a football, you check his legs, his confirmation and already you're dreaming."

Michael knows all about injuries. His famous race mare Missunited was retired in her prime but still managed to win on three legs in Goodwood. Galway Hurdle winner Rebel Fitz is out injured.

It seems the big trainers who train for the wealthiest owners will dominate for some time to come. It's getting harder and harder for the small man to compete.

That's not Willie Mullins' fault. But racing does need to take serious look at gearing up races specifically for trainers with a limited number of horses in training. The confined system works well in point to points.

Willie Mullins may run as many as six in a race. There are many fine trainers who would not have had that many Cheltenham runners in a career.

Remember we have the best in the world here in this country and the competition for horses is intense.

Douvan still has to jump around to win the Arkle. Many horses have come here and tumbled, especially at the second last, which has a steep landing.

The Arkle is run at a fierce pace. A mistake, they say, puts an extra stone on a horse's back. It would be such a thrill for all of us to see Douvan romp home in the manner of the champion he really is. The English will cheer as loudly as ourselves. Racing is the only sport where competing nations will cheer for a horse from another country if he has the class.

There has been much made of Ruby's falling at the last. I find it distasteful to question the credentials of one of the greatest jockeys of all time, if not the greatest.

The simple explanation is that Ruby is in front at the last more than any horseman because of the quality of his horses and the quality of his riding. It's called the law of averages. The great Tom Dreaper, who trained Arkle, used to say that horses fell near the end of races because they were tired. Makes sense to me.


After my first visit to Cheltenham I arrived home in a blaze of glory, a day late. I kept emptying my pockets, by way of reparation, until the double bed was covered by a duvet of sterling.

The following year I was lucky to have the price of the statutory bottle of perfume.

With these warnings in mind, here's our Cheltenham tip. It's Douvan. I know it's like shooting fish in Donegal Catch but I so badly need a winning tip.

As he's far too short a price to bet on I would suggest a small each-way wager on God's Own at a best price of 33/1 in the Queen Mother.

Istabraq won on the day of my first cap. The English threw their hats in the air and the stands rained Fedoras, Trilbys, Healy-Raes and Homburgs. I'm pretty sure Douvan will become a hat-thrown-in-the-air horse and a champion that transcends nationality and borders.

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