Douvan being driven to victory in last year’s Arkle by Ruby Walsh
On Wednesday morning Ruby Walsh will be like a man who wakes on Christmas morning and sees a Ferrari outside his window.
Because later that day Ruby will ride Douvan in the two-mile Champion Chase at Cheltenham, the horse that Patrick Mullins considers to be racing’s equal of the wonder car.
Patrick is not just Willie’s son, he is fast becoming a serious horseman in his own right, almost a player-coach to his father and a key man in making the Closutton operation the huge power it has been over the last decade of jump racing.
Good horses have come and gone from the Mullins yard in Carlow, but the 27-year-old cannot contain his enthusiasm for Douvan.
Having already compared him to a Ferrari, Mullins then reaches for another fast mover to compare with Rich Ricci’s seven-year-old who has won his last 14 races between hurdles and steeplechases.
“To me he’s like Usain Bolt. He’s big and leggy and you can always pick him out at the start. He’s a freak. He’s all legs, like Bolt.”
Patrick once had the pleasure of not so much riding the horse as steering him around a racecourse. On St Stephen’s Day 2015, stable jockey Ruby Walsh was at Kempton for the King George, with number two Paul Townend taking care of the horses in Leopardstown.
But Townend was just coming back from an injury and tweaked it in the first race, so Paul opted off the horse, fearing he wasn’t right.
“My dad rang me and told me to get on Douvan. And, my God, it was like having that Ferrari. I knew he was so good that basically my job was to be attached to Douvan after each fence and I managed it.
“The way I looked at it,” Mullins adds, “once I stayed on his back, I was going to win. I didn’t take any pressure into the race at all.”
There will be pressure on Wednesday. Despite all the glories of recent times, the Champion Hurdle is the only one of the four ‘Majors’ at Cheltenham that his Dad has won, and Douvan is 1/4 with the bookies to knock off Wednesday’s highlight.
“That’s it: he’s got to go and do it. We’ve never won the Champion Chase, we’d love to win it. Two-mile chasers are exciting and it’s one of the great spectacles of the sport when they go at it. It’s an iconic race when you see the likes of Moscow Flyer, Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre in recent years. Hopefully, Douvan can add his name to that list.”
And with that done, might Douvan try and go and do different things? He certainly has the potential.
“Yes, he has,” Patrick agrees. “Kauto Star ran in the Champion Chase, and fell in it, before he won the Gold Cup. I don’t think you could compare him to Kauto Star.
“But you also have to consider that if you have a horse that is very good at something (being a two-mile chaser), then why change? Being a two-mile chaser is not a second-grade title. Hopefully, we’ll get on the Champion Chase board this year and we’ll go from there.”
Patrick really began to play a part in the stable in his late teens, making his first Festival ride in 2007.
“It was on Adamant Approach,” he recalls, grinning at the memory. “He was 13, I was 17… there wasn’t much in it, was there?”
But it has been a magical decade. “When I was growing up, it was about trying to beat Noel Meade for the Irish championship. We got that done. The last four to five years we’ve been in a very privileged position with great horses.
“This year with the Gigginstown thing, and others horses going by the wayside, it’s been difficult. But in a way I think it’s good as it stops you getting complacent.
“With the likes of Annie Power and Faugheen going out, we appreciate having Douvan all the more. You think of Paul Nicholls. He had Kauto Star, Denman, Big Buck’s, Master Minded. This year he goes there and he might not have a runner in any of the biggest Championship races.
“You’re entitled to nothing. We’ll go there and enjoy it while we can, and try and prolong it as long as we can.”
Patrick is not sure how many horses he will actually ride this week. He rides most of the stable’s bumper horses in Ireland, but in England the professionals can ride in bumpers. Thus Ruby, Paul Townend and Patrick’s cousins, David and Danny Mullins, will be in the queue ahead of him.
He can’t ride in Friday’s Conditional jockeys race either as it is based on age over in England, not on winners ridden as it is in Ireland, and Patrick is too old.
That leaves him with the three amateur races at the Festival: the four-miler on Tuesday, the Kim Muir handicap chase on Thursday and the Foxhunters on Friday.
“I’m told the late John Oaksey, whose family train Coneygree, is the only man to win all three. I’ve won the four-miler and hope to have another shot at it this week.
“We’ve never won a handicap chase at Cheltenham so I don’t know about Thursday’s race and we never seem to have a horse for the Foxhunters either. But I’ve still got time,” he ends.