Best from the west are on their way as Mullins readies Douvan for Altior duel
The beast from the east is on its way but so too is the best from the west after Willie Mullins rated Douvan’s chances of making Cheltenham and a sumptuous showdown with Altior as considerably better than 50-50.
Douvan seemed destined to miss Cheltenham in mid-December due to intermittent lameness but his recovery has been swifter than anticipated and Mullins is readying him for a crack at Altior in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase in what could be the race of the 2018 festival.
Speaking at a media morning at Closutton on Monday, Mullins said: "Douvan has been pleasing me and doing everything right. He has a few good bits of work to do this week. He has to go for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, all being well.
"Not so long ago we were being told we couldn't train him for a year but within a week or ten days he was sound, when we thought he shouldn't have been sound.
"We started reinvestigating and reevaluating some of the findings we saw, then we said, 'Right, he's sound, let's do a bit more.' We kept upping his work and he was good and sound, and stayed sound."
Mullins is not a huge fan of hyperbole but heaped praise upon a piece of work Douvan did on the eve of his December injury.
"He did a bit of work and I remember saying, 'This is awesome,' but then he was lame next morning. I can't remember who he worked against but he flew. It was the fastest bit of work I'd ever seen him do. I thought it was frightening and I said to myself if he reproduces that on the track he'll be very hard to beat.
"Whether he'll ever get back to that, I don't know, but his work at the moment is certainly good enough."
Mullins added: "He's been away a couple of times but it's day to day. I just hope I can get him back to the level he was at in November. Unless we're happy with him he won't go.
"Altior was very good at Newbury. It could be a race to savour but we've got to get there first."
Three's a charm
Deciding between the Unibet Champion Hurdle and Ryanair Chase is no ordinary decision but Yorkhill is no ordinary animal and Mullins is leaning towards the day one feature for the enigmatic eight-year-old, successful in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and JLT Novices' Chase at the last two festivals.
That prompted Yorkhill's odds for the Champion Hurdle to be cut to 8-1 (from 10), with just Buveur D'Air and stablemate Faugheen in front of him in some lists.
"It's 60-40 he runs in the Champion Hurdle," said Mullins. "He's not a great work-horse at home and idles in front when he gets there at the track. He never fired at Leopardstown, and when he went down to the second fence you could see he couldn’t jump with two-mile chasers.
"We know he loves hurdles and there'd be plenty of pace in the Champion Hurdle to bring his stamina into play. He'd be a lot easier to ride in that. Maybe he wasn't ready at Christmas and blew up. I was very happy with his work last week."
Faugheen, Melon and Wicklow Brave are all set for the Champion Hurdle and Mullins continued: "Faugheen ran a grand race the last day, a lot better than at Christmas, but he'll have to up his game to win another Champion Hurdle.
"He mightn't need to be as good as he once was and I still think he'll be competitive. We haven't gone downhill, anyway – we're going up.
"Faugheen might never come back to what he was. I'm delighted he was what he was. He might come back to that, but age isn't on his side. Hopefully Cheltenham might reignite him a bit as he obviously likes the place."
Mullins also revealed that Vroum Vroum Mag, who has not run since last April, is working well in advance of a tilt at the OLBG Mares' Hurdle, which she won in 2016 and was runner-up in last year.