No Gold Cup regrets for Mullins as Vautour sprouts wings in Ryanair
Willie Mullins felt vindicated in his shock decision to swerve today's Gold Cup with Vautour after his stunning young chaser defied stable concerns about his well-being to soar to Ryanair Chase glory in spectacular fashion.
The four-day extravaganza's newest championship event had never been won by an Irish-trained horse in its 11-year history. Michael O'Leary has been trying desperately to win the race that his airline sponsors and ran Valseur Lido and Road To Riches here.
Had Mullins not had that contentious late change of heart, O'Leary would have got his wish. Instead, on a sun-kissed St Patrick's Day in the Cotswolds when the raiders plundered six of the seven races, he was reduced to the runner-up berth for a third time.
His Mullins-trained Valseur Lido nabbed Noel Meade's Road To Riches late to ensure that he at least hoovered up the place money, a consolation he also endured when Alpha Des Obeaux chased home Thistlecrack in similarly futile style in the Ryanair Hurdle.
Nothing could cope with Vautour's unadulterated superiority under the ever sublime Ruby Walsh. The consistent word from Closutton recently was that Vautour's work was moderate.
His owner Rich Ricci had stated definitively that he wouldn't run here at all if he weren't up to competing in the Gold Cup, and therein lay the root of punters' anger at the about-turn.
Many were relishing the prospect of seeing such a fantastic specimen strut his stuff in the sport's pinnacle event.
After watching his evens favourite obliterate the opposition to triumph in a third Festival Grade One and bring his aggregate winning distance here to 27 lengths, Mullins stressed that was also his desire.
We should probably be glad that Vautour at least graced this grandest of equine arenas with his presence at all, and, if this is him at 90pc, how good could he yet be?
"I think he is a Gold Cup horse but he wasn't working like one," Mullins explained of what was the second leg of his second hat-trick of the week. "The more work we put into him, the worse he appeared to be getting, so I just changed everything in the last week and hoped things would work. He was the same last year but this was a bigger task."
Asked if, having witnessed such a demolition, he regretted in any way not charging Vautour with securing him that hitherto elusive Gold Cup success, Mullins was unequivocal.
"No," he said with a straight bat, "because he has won."
Of Vautour's transformation from a lacklustre workhorse into his latest incarnation of an equine second coming, he added: "I completely changed the way we trained him, the way we ride him, the tack that he wears, and I threw him out in the field - the only stable he has been in the last 10 days are the two nights he was here.
"That was breathtaking considering what he had been doing at home. He had a hard race in the King George against Cue Card and probably didn't get over it.
"I brought him over thinking that I mightn't run him in anything, but on the gallops here, maybe with the bit of sunshine and good ground, he just seemed to be getting better by the minute. He must have a huge engine to do that with the prep that he has had."
The champion trainer went on to say that he wouldn't rule out a trip to Aintree for one of the marquee Grade Ones, but suggested that a direct route to Punchestown might be more likely.
Vautour won so easily that turning out again today for the Gold Cup didn't sound as outlandish as it maybe should have. Mullins laughed at the prospect and, if not declaring for both races was a strategic shortcoming, it is his only one so far this week. He and Walsh had taken the JLT Chase when the dogged Black Hercules rallied to see off its 4/1 joint-favourite Bristol De Mai.
Limini then brought their running tally to seven with a bloodless odds-on rout in the inaugural Grade Two Trull House Stud Mares' Novices' Hurdle. The 16/1 treble ensured that Walsh has equalled his 2009 record of seven Festival wins, and leaves Mullins one shy of last year's eight with a day to spare.
O'Leary secured a welcome win when Bryan Cooper guided the Colm Murphy-trained Empire Of Dirt to victory in a handicap chase.
Earlier, Davy Russell, having been unseated from Zabana at the start of the JLT, ensured prompt compensation aboard Mall Dini (14/1) in the Pertemps Hurdle. It was Russell's second win of the week and a Festival first for Pat Kelly, whose Craughwell stable in Co Galway numbers just five horses. "It's very exciting," beamed Kelly.
"He's a genius," Russell said of his trainer. "Not many people know him, but he's a very shrewd man."
Gordon Elliott, whose talented No More Heroes suffered what turned out to be a fatal injury on Wednesday, had provided Russell's first win of the week.
He doubled in the Kim Muir up when JP McManus's Cause Of Causes (9/2) somehow replicated the dramatic nature of its win in the 2015 four-miler under an inspired Jamie Codd.
"It was not a straightforward race," Codd said after coming from near last to first. "It is just incredible to win for Gordon and JP. It's magic - Cheltenham is Cheltenham. There is no better way place to ride horses in the world."