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Cheltenham Festival: Annie helps star duo power to superb hat-trick

By Richard Forristal

If Min's early defeat prompted reservations about the extent to which Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh - the pair ended up with a hat-trick - might dominate day one of the Cheltenham Festival, Douvan's devastating Arkle Trophy rout soon banished those fears.

On another magical afternoon in the Cotswolds that saw Annie Power trigger an early examination of the architectural soundness of the wonderful new gallery overlooking the winner's enclosure, Douvan's staggering exhibition of superiority spurred thoughts of what the future might hold.

Of course, his devastating destruction of inferior opposition in the Grade One should itself be embraced, no less than Annie Power's Champion Hurdle coronation.

Both dominated their respective fields at will.

Still, it is the mind-boggling potential that the six-year-old Douvan possesses that really whets the appetite.

By becoming the shortest priced winner in the history of the £150,000 two-miler at odds of 1/4, the angular son of Walk In the Park had to do little more than live up to its sire's name.

Afterwards, though, you were left to ponder how high this stunning specimen of athleticism might yet soar.

Mullins, who combined with Walsh to bag a 6/1 treble when Vroum Vroum Mag secured his eighth successive OLBG Mares Hurdle, was asked which path Douvan might follow.

The Champion Chase or the Gold Cup? On a day that began with the bombshell Vautour about-turn from Gold Cup to tomorrow's Ryanair Chase, Mullins was characteristically equivocal.

"I don't know, he could do either," he responded without a hint of irony. "I think he is certainly a Gold Cup horse, but we might go the Champion Chase route with him. He has that pace.

"I wouldn't have had any problem supplementing him for the Champion Hurdle this year, but he stays as well - and he settles. Hopefully he will just keep winning."

Douvan, now unbeaten in eight for the Closutton genius, was just as dismissive of the runner-up Sizing John as he had been in the Supreme Novices Hurdle 12 months earlier. Henry De Bromhead's charge again finished seven lengths behind.

Douvan stepped at the last but that was his only error. He can be backed at up to 14/1 for next year's Gold Cup, but vies for Champion Chase favouritism with stable-mate Un De Sceaux, which is charged with plundering today's feature, having won the 2015 Arkle. Both are as low as 6/4 for the 2017 edition.

"He did that little thing at the last but it didn't seem to bother him and he just sprinted up the hill," Mullins reflected.

"He could be anything and he hasn't disproved that there."

Walsh, winning his third Arkle in all and taking his Festival total to 48, echoed those sentiments.

"Willie's not one to jump up and down about a horse," he stressed. "But this fellow does everything so easily at home. He's a brilliant work horse and has always shown a great mentality.

"He wastes no time in the air and has a huge amount of natural ability. I'd imagine there is more to come, because he has only run four times over fences. He could be anything."

It was an emotional moment for Walsh who, in his post-race interview, hailed a little girl called Annie, believed to be a six-year-old cancer sufferer, the daughter of a vet at Mullins' yard.

The 5/2 favourite consigned her galling Festival record to the history books to become the fourth mare to win the Champion Hurdle.

Given that Paddy Mullins trained Dawn Run to prevail in 1984, the family are responsible for 50 per cent of that total.

It was left to Vroum Vroum Mag to dispense with the vastly inferior competition at odds of 4/6 in the mares' race.

"Her work during last week was awesome," Mullins revealed.

"It was so good that we wondered whether we'd supplemented the right mare into the Champion Hurdle.

"Ruby thought at one point last year that she could be a Grand National horse as she's that laid back."

Vroum Vroum Mag was followed home by 66-1 shot Rock On The Moor, while 40-1 Legacy Gold - trained in Larne by Stuart Crawford - took an excellent third place.

Armagh jockey Brian Hughes on board 12-1 shot Ballyalton won the concluding Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase.

On a sad note, there were three equine deaths on the day, Govaness, Pont Alexandre and Rezorbi.

Belfast Telegraph

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