I just hope to get the real Douvan back - Willie Mullins
When scrolling down through the ante-post lists for the Cheltenham Festival, it's striking to see the difference in complexion from previous years and while Willie Mullins' team is as strong as ever, there isn't the same monopoly at the head of the markets.
Mullins has collected the Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award at five of the last seven Festivals - and is a narrow 5/4 favourite to reclaim his crown from Gordon Elliott (2/1) with Nicky Henderson a close third (3/1) - but several of his stable stars are on retrieval missions.
Unlike other years where there were 'certainties' around every corner, there are more questions than answers this time around with the key players in the Mullins battalion heading to the Cotswolds in two weeks' time with a point to prove.
Douvan is one such case with the brilliant two-mile chaser off the racecourse since limping home lame in last year's Champion Chase - where he went off 2/9 favourite - and it didn't look like Rich Ricci's eight-year-old would be seen again at all this year.
Everything is still "day by day" but a mouth-watering Champion Chase duel with Altior looks in store as Mullins bids to recapture the form which saw Douvan complete a jaw-dropping piece of work prior to his aborted run in Sandown's Tingle Creek.
"I remember the morning that he got the injury. He did a bit of work and I remember saying, 'This is awesome,' but of course he was lame the next morning. I can't remember what he worked against but he flew. It was the fastest bit of work I had ever seen him do," Mullins said yesterday.
"I said to my team, 'I do not want to see him do a piece of work like that again - save it for the racecourse!' I thought it was frightening and I said to myself if he reproduces that on the track, he will be very hard to beat.
"Whether he will ever get back to that, I don't know, but his work at the moment is certainly good enough. He has been pleasing me and doing everything right. He has a few good bits of work to do this week.
"He has been away a couple of times already but it is day to day with him. I just hope I can get him back to the level he was at in November. Unless we are happy with him, he won't go. It could be a race to savour (with Altior) but we have got to get there first."
Having previously said his participation was "50-50", Mullins admits it is "considerably better odds now" but he is still unsure how he will react when they "put the gun to his head in the next few days" for some serious home work.
"If he comes back sound from those, the gun will probably be put to his head at Cheltenham, Altior will probably do that," he joked.
Another bidding to reclaim former glory is Faugheen with 'The Machine' set to make just his third Cheltenham appearance and belatedly defend his 2015 Champion Hurdle crown against current champion Buveur D'Air.
Not since Istabraq was pulled up 16 years ago in the Champion Hurdle has a crowd been deflated as quickly as when Faugheen was pulled up at Christmas in the Ryanair Hurdle. Many predicted that was the end for the ten-year-old but Mullins feels his subsequent second to Supasundae at the Dublin Racing Festival earlier this month may have been more encouraging than it seemed, although he doesn't know whether the "sparkle" will return.
"He worked well enough to run the last day and ran a grand race, way better than Christmas anyway but he'll have to up his game to try and win at Cheltenham. He mightn't need to be as good as he once was, I still think he's competitive," Mullins said. "We still had plenty of time for him to spark and get better from Leopardstown to the middle of March, we haven't gone downhill at home anyway, we're going up, maybe a bit slower than his usual but he is improving.
"This fella (Faugheen) might never come back and reach the heights that he did. I'm delighted he was what he was and hopefully he can come back to that but age is not on his side, so if it isn't to be it won't be."
With 54 Festival victories, Mullins trails all-time leading trainer Henderson by four but few of his winners have been as enigmatic as Yorkhill, the dual Festival winner talented enough to have held entries for the four major prizes of the week a few months back.
Two disappointing efforts over fences mean the Carlow handler is now "60-40" in leaning towards a tilt at the Champion Hurdle with the Graham Wylie-owned eight-year-old as he would "a lot easier to ride" over the smaller obstacles but a decision will be left until closer to flag-fall.
Few prizes have eluded Mullins in a glittering training career but six Gold Cup seconds leave him still without a blue riband to his name and he reports leading fancy Killultagh Vic to be in fine fettle following a final-fence fall in the Irish Gold Cup while Djakadam (twice runner-up), Total Recall and Bachasson also bid to break his duck.
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