Douvan is a great but fragile horse that has won at two previous Cheltenham Festivals. Past glories and bundles of early promise have given way to injuries that have kept him off the track, so trainer Willie Mullins has to mind him in search of one more major triumph.
After one season over hurdles that culminated in 2015 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Punchestown Festival wins, Douvan went chasing. A 14-race unbeaten streak, starting in France before he was bought by Rich and Susannah Ricci and sent to Mullins’ County Carlow stables, ended when he finished lame down the field in seventh in the 2017 Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Until that point, Douvan had demolished every horse up against him. Eight Grade 1 victories on his CV also include the Irish and English Arkle Novice Chases, plus two other successes at Leopardstown. Douvan was also the last winner of the old Tied Cottage Chase there before the Dublin Racing Festival was put together and the race scratched from the programme.
Like many of the Ricci horses at Mullins’ yard, he is French bred and a bay gelding by 2005 Epsom Derby runner-up Walk In The Park. Douvan has the same sire as stable companion Min and the owners may keep those two apart come Cheltenham.
Patrick Mullins, Irish champion amateur jockey and son of the trainer, has suggested skipping Cheltenham is a possibility. Other Douvan entries connections could make include the Red Mills Trial Chase at Gowran Park in February, the Melling Chase at Aintree during the Grand National meeting in April or the Devenish Chase at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival later that same month.
These are all races over two-and-a-half miles, but he has proven effective when stepped up to that trip. When will Douvan next race? It’s not clear.
Douvan is entered in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, however. He has run in this two-mile Festival feature contest twice before without success and, as an older horse now, may appreciate further.
The fact that Mullins didn’t include the Ryanair Chase among Douvan entries suggests connections don’t want to give him a hard race if he turns up at this year’s Festival. This is also reflected in best Champion Chase odds of 20/1 with Betfair.
Douvan is also as short as 8/1 with Betfred, however, and that vast range in price shows not even the bookies are sure if he will try to make it third time lucky in the race. If he does go to Cheltenham, then he likely faces some familiar foes from his own stable that he works with at home, old rivals on the track and some new opposition.
Altior and Douvan was the clash many horse racing fans wanted to see. It didn’t quite happen in the Champion Chase two years ago as Douvan fell when still travelling well four fences from home.
As the winner of the last two renewals, Altior is the one to beat on Cheltenham form. Douvan also has to worry about the young pretender Defi Du Seuil in the Champion Chase too. He is still an improving horse and favourite with most bookmakers to wrest Altior’s crown away.
Assuming Min will be kept apart from Douvan and Altior, the Mullins stable companions with less mileage on the clock and scope for progress include Chacun Pour Soi and Cilaos Emery. Punchestown Festival conqueror Un De Sceaux could also re-oppose in the Champion Chase.
Another Irish rival to contend with is the progressive A Plus Tard. Douvan will have to roll back the years if he does take his chance at Cheltenham.
Douvan has had just one run this season to date following an injury enforced racecourse absence of 569 days. That was in the Grade 2 Clonmel Oil Chase in November when Willie Mullins stepped him to two-and-a-half miles for the first time ever in his career.
Race terms were entirely in Douvan’s favour. His long time off the track meant he got in at Clonmel without any penalties. Although he made a couple of mistakes, Douvan ran out a very comfortable 9½ lengths winner, got the trip just fine and can be forgiven errors after such a lengthy absence.
He was 17 lengths in front of Monalee, who has twice finished runner-up in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over further. It’s easy to pick holes in this form, but Douvan has had just three races since the 2017 Cheltenham Festival and came to grief after a year off when running in the Champion Chase again there.
Douvan proved no worse for the tumble, however, in a clash with Un De Sceaux in the 2018 Punchestown Champion Chase where he was a gallant runner-up to his popular veteran stablemate. His younger self would be a major contender for Cheltenham when he had that aura of invincibility.
No rival horse can truly lay claim to shattering that. Douvan has simply been unlucky with injuries from 2017 onwards, but is relatively lightly-raced for his age as a result. The problem in his case is wear and tear.
As Un De Sceaux has shown in winning at Punchestown in each of the last two seasons, age is no barrier to success. Douvan probably does have one last bid for major honours in him, but whether that day in the sun is at Cheltenham again, where everything is so hotly competitive, remains to be seen.