Cheltenham

Rich Ricci targets more big-race glory at Cheltenham

Trainer Willie Mullins and Douvan pose for a picture during a visit to his stables at Closutton, Carlow
By Graham Clark

CERTAIN things have over time become synonymous with the Cheltenham Festival and the sight of Rich Ricci's pink-and-green spotted silks being walked back into the hallowed winner's enclosure has developed into one of them.

After enjoying five winners at the meeting 12 months ago, led by the Champion Hurdle success of Annie Power, the powerhouse owner will be hoping more big-race glory heads his way, with his team once again brimming full of star quality.

Though Ricci can look forward to another profitable four days at Prestbury Park, this season has proven to be a test of his character, having suffered the tragic loss of triple Festival winner Vautour, along with seeing Annie Power, Faugheen and Min all ruled out of his and trainer Willie Mullins' team through injury setbacks.

He said: "I'm just looking forward to getting them there. It's been such a diabolical year. I'm not sure how else to describe it.

"You only see the superstars and the names, but there have been plenty of others who have lots of potential that have been out for one reason or another this year. It's been a very difficult time for the yard.

"Vautour clearly was the biggest blow, as Faugheen will be back and Annie Power could come back. I think the Vautour one was just brutal. I really felt for Willie.

"That is a hard phone call to make with really no explanation but just a freak accident. It was a big blow to the yard at the time as well.

"That still pains me and I still feel that, as he came alive at Cheltenham. It was his racecourse. That is kind of lurking in the background, so I will be kind of glad that we can get past this Cheltenham and move on from that."

But Ricci still has arguably his most valuable asset and biggest name of them all, with Douvan long odds-on to land the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday.

Having sauntered to victories in the Supreme in 2015 and in last year's Arkle, the seven-year-old looks an almost cast-iron certainty to become just one of an elite bunch of horses to strike at three successive Festivals and deliver both Ricci and Mullins their first win in the two-mile championship.

Ricci said: "Douvan certainly has to be the one to look forward to.

"I worry slightly, as to me in looking to my eye, Douvan doesn't always necessarily run his best race at Cheltenham but he is going there in great form and I'm hoping he can put up something pretty special.

"I think the better the horses in there, the better Douvan will run. I'd like to see something get him off the bridle at home or on a racecourse to see what he is really made of. I want to see it as much as anybody. If we can't see it this year hopefully we can see it next year.

"We can't be cocky, either, he has got to get round and get over all those fences. We've seen what can happen to the very best with Cue Card falling last year when having a very good chance."

For much of the season the betting for the Cheltenham Gold Cup has been dominated by horses from the yard of trainer Colin Tizzard, and despite the absence of Thistlecrack the Milborne Port handler still has the services of Native River and Cue Card to call upon.

Despite the market suggesting the Grade One prize will head back to Dorset, Ricci remains optimistic Djakadam can go one place better than his previous two outings in the three-and-a-quarter-mile test.

He said: "I liked Djakadam even before Thistlecrack went out. I think that last year was not the ideal prep, as you will recall. He fell and cut himself quite badly in the BetBright Chase at Cheltenham.

"It was hard to get work into him and he ended up working twice a day and it was kind of a rush.

"He still ran a big race, but to my eye he wasn't as impressive as the year before, when he was closing all the way to line on Coneygree.

"This year there are no complaints. The prep has been brilliant. He is in very good form and he runs great when he is fresh.

"He has won his last two as a fresh horse. I'm as confident as you can be, I suppose. I think it's probably his best chance.

"They (Tizzard horses) have dominated things and they've been incredibly impressive. It's nice not to be in the headlines for once and to be in the background and I'm happy with that.

"He should be coming into his peak. He's certainly continuing to get stronger and I think we saw that in his first run of the season in the John Durkan. He certainly looks the part and we know he gets the trip, so you would have to fancy his chances."

Helping Ricci to achieve much of his success at the Festival has been the presence of stand-out novice hurdlers and while he admits this year is a little different in that respect, he singled out one of his younger brigade he expects to make a big impact.

He said: "We don't have a stand-out novice. I think we have novices that can be competitive. It's not like in previous years when we've had a hot buzzy novice coming into it.

"I'd say Let's Dance would be the one. She is an outstanding mare.

"We won five races at Cheltenham last year, which was amazing. We won't do that this year. If we can nick one or two, that would be great."

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