Lost amid the fanfare of the Jockey Club’s recent £45m (€51.6m) facelift of Prestbury Park, with its 6,500-capacity grandstand, new members’ facilities and improved bars, was a fresh expanse of artificial grass about the size of a tennis court just to the left of the jockeys’ weighing room.
This is the loser’s enclosure. It is no lush mat but rather a bald and uninviting carpet that has been worn down to a bad five-a-side pitch by the many hundreds of hooves that for so many years before that had ploughed this small patch of premium land into a miasma of muck.
No longer a threat to an owner or trainer’s best brogues, it remains a hushed, haunted environment where dreams of a lifetime go to be mourned as connections and jockeys huddle together and dissect defeats and disasters in intimate little huddles.
Nobody expected to see Douvan end up there yesterday.
And yet, there he was, passing through the newly-built triumphal arch that spans the walk between the parade ring and the track and then diverted away from the winner’s enclosure by Ruby Walsh with what must rank as the most detested right turn in National Hunt racing.
Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci were at their star’s flank before the buckets of water landed on his back. Walsh did the talking, or most of it, but the debrief lasted only a handful of minutes before the jockey walked away at the type of canter that left most of the pitched queries in his wake.
“We were beaten a long way out,” he said as the masses surrounding the main parade ring and winner’s enclosure prepared to welcome an unexpected victor in Special Tiara.
“He didn’t jump well. He never got going.”
Mullins attempted a similarly brisk exit but allowed himself to be cornered. As he does.
How? What? Why?
The questions came in all forms and from a flurry of angles as almost 70,000 punters and a fair few million TV viewers struggled to comprehend how a 2/9 favourite unbeaten in 13 runs under Mullins’ care could fade from heir apparent to puzzling subplot in a race he was expected to dominate.
Unlucky for some, and all that.
The on-course commentators spoke of Douvan being “a bit brave” and having to reach for some fences from early on but everyone could see clearly his jumping was off. Mullins was thinking to himself that he would have to be “a superhorse” to win in that fashion after just two jumps.
Turns out he wasn’t. Not this day.
Mistakes of that gravity could be absorbed in a beginners’ chase, not in a feature at the Cheltenham Festival. When horses jump like that they risk injury. At the very least, such needless exertions drain energy and make even the best vulnerable.
“Something might come to light later on when he cools down, but I’m only thinking maybe a couple of those big jumps that he put in early on that he might have pulled something,” said Mullins. “A muscle or a ligament or something but we won’t know until either later on today or tomorrow morning I’d say.
“To me, he was clearly not going well at the top of the hill. I’m assuming something happened him when he put in those huge jumps. I don’t think he’s ever done that before. And why he did that, I don’t know. I would imagine we’ll find a physical problem rather than anything else.”
This was a coronation that turned into a car crash.
Douvan hadn’t just won all his earlier outings, he had obliterated all-comers. Previews had utterly dismissed the rest of the 10-strong field. He wasn’t competing against his modern-day peers yesterday, he was angling for a place up there with the greats.
Mullins still hasn’t given up hope that he could be.
“I’m hoping he could be one of the best horses I’ve ever trained. Today was clearly not his run. We’ll have to get him back on track if we can. That’s the way it is. What can I do? We’re all disappointed that this happened. Now my main job is to find out what is wrong and how long it will take to fix.”
Inexplicable in and of itself, it was at least in keeping with a week of utter frustration for the Closutton camp.
And so day three dawns without a single victory for either Mullins or Walsh, the best result posted by the pair yesterday coming in the RSA Chase when Bellshill finished a forgotten third to Mite Bite and Whisper as the first two served up a classic.
“It’s disappointing but I don’t think we were unlucky in any race,” said Mullins with the usual equanimity. “So I wasn’t too worried about that. Today, Bacardys almost getting taken down in the first is just the way things were.
“And I don’t think we were unlucky with the Coral Cup horses. that’s what they are. They are what they are and there was nothing that was expecting to win. We were hoping but this fella is a big disappointment alright.”
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