Cheltenham Festival: Vautour checks in for Ryanair Chase
Connections of Vautour are hoping the recent improvement in his home work will be good enough to win the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham on Thursday.
Since being back in work after finishing second to Cue Card in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, Vautour had not been pleasing his trainer Willie Mullins in the build-up to the Festival.
And though he has been working better just recently, Mullins and owner Rich Ricci felt the Timico Gold Cup would be too much at this stage.
With Ricci having a leading Gold Cup contender in last year's runner-up Djakadam, the decision was taken to switch Vautour to the Ryanair, over a distance similar to that of his emphatic victory in the JLT Novices' Chase 12 months ago.
"He's been working better in the past week as at any stage in January and February," said Joe Chambers, racing manager to owner Rich Ricci.
"Hopefully that improvement will continue to the day of the race and that might be good enough to go close and try and replicate his performance of last year in the JLT."
Road To Riches has also been switched to the Ryanair, though he has been declared for the Gold Cup as a precaution.
Trainer Noel Meade would have preferred the horse to have had another crack at the blue riband in which he was third last year.
However, owner Michael O'Leary has several chances in the Gold Cup (under his Gigginstown House Stud banner) and wanted a strong presence in a race he sponsors through his company Ryanair.
"He's in good form, he travelled over well and seems to be in good shape. He's very happy with himself," said Meade.
"I would worry about the quicker ground over two and a half, while I've just always felt that two and a half around Cheltenham is too sharp.
"If he gets in trouble over the first three or four fences and gets shuffled back he will struggle a lot.
"I personally would prefer to run in the Gold Cup, but he (O'Leary) owns the horse.
"He's a good horse but I'd just be worried about the shorter trip, but that was the decision made."
Gigginstown are also represented by Valseur Lido, who was taken out of the Gold Cup at the final declaration stage.
"It's good to have the two of them there," said Gigginstown racing manager Eddie O'Leary.
"Road (To Riches) will love the ground.
"The trip is probably a bit on the short side for Valseur Lido, but he's in good form.
"We're hoping the two of them will give a good account of themselves."
Smashing has gone from strength this term, winning all his three starts, culminating in the Grade Two Red Mills Chase at Gowran last month.
His jockey Johnny Burke believes the Henry de Bromhead-trained grey is his best ride at the meeting.
Burke said: "He's in great order and has a massive engine.
"He handles heavy ground well but I think over this trip on decent ground he'll be fine.
"He's probably my best ride of the meeting, and my best chance of a winner."
Paul Nicholls expects the extended two and a half miles to be tailor made for Vibrato Valtat.
"He is a good horse and he won the Haldon Gold Cup easily enough," said the Ditcheat handler.
"He ran very well in the Tingle Creek and was third behind Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy at Kempton over Christmas.
"He is not a two-miler now and has been crying out for a trip. He worked well on Saturday morning. He has run some good races over two miles, but he has been flat-out.
"I think the trainer made an error running him over that trip for too long.
"I think two and a half will suit him well and he has a big chance."
Village Vic has won two big handicaps at Cheltenham this season which has inevitably seen him rise up the ratings.
As a result, trainer Philip Hobbs feels he deserves to take his chance in this higher grade.
Hobbs said: "If he ran 7lb or 8lb above his handicap mark, he'd have a strong chance in the Ryanair."
Taquin Du Seuil, winner of the JLT Novices' Chase in 2014, was supplemented at the confirmation stage after showing trainer Jonjo O'Neill he had recovered from an injury that had kept him out for the first half of the current campaign.
Returning to action quicker than expected, he won a handicap at Warwick last month.
O'Neill told At The Races: "Even when we were doing the entries we weren't sure whether we'd make the track or not so it was great to get him back - hence we didn't put him in the Ryanair to begin with.
"Then he came back in great form and won nicely at Warwick.
"We know he's a decent horse on his day. We thought it would be hard to win a handicap with him so we looked into the Ryanair and thought it would be a good idea to supplement him."
Al Ferof had a good Festival record when trained by Paul Nicholls, including winning the Supreme Novices' Hurdle in 2011.
Switched by owner John Hales to Nicholls' former assistant Dan Skelton, Al Ferof makes his fifth appearance at the meeting.
Skelton reports the grey in good shape but accepts with Vautour running it puts a different complexion on the race.
He said: "Obviously Vautour running in the race means it's an awful lot stronger, but I never had him as being unlikely to run, to be honest - he was always odds-on favourite for the race."
Course specialist Annacotty, trained by Alan King, tries his hand at the top level after two wins at the track this winter, including in the Paddy Gold Cup.
The Barbury Castle trainer told www.alankingracing.co.uk: "Annacotty has had a grand season and we have never had him better.
"But, that said, he now tries his luck in Grade One company and he'll have to be at the top of his game for his biggest test yet in the Ryanair Chase.
"The worry is that they might go a bit quick for him on this drying ground, but if he is still in contention at the top of the hill he'll run a mighty race as he is incredibly tough."