Gold Cup fancy Vautour swerves warm-up races
Vautour will go straight to Cheltenham in March after Willie Mullins opted not to enter the Gold Cup joint-favourite in either of his potential prep races on Saturday.
The champion trainer had indicated at the weekend that he might prefer to train the exciting dual Festival winner for the sport's showpiece event rather than give him another run. Come Saturday, there will be just over four weeks left to the start of the all-consuming Prestbury Park bonanza.
Vautour was last seen on the track when chinned by Cue Card in a thrilling King George IV Chase at Kempton on St Stephen's Day.
Following his stablemate Djakadam's fall at Cheltenham 11 days ago, he has been vying for the Gold Cup market lead at around 9/2 with Gordon Elliott's Don Cossack, and there has been an growing sense that Mullins would not risk giving Vautour a hard race or increase the chance of his suffering an injury by turning him out again.
In 2013, Bobs Worth became the first horse since Flyingbolt in the 1960s to win three different races at the Festival when he landed the Gold Cup.
The same possibility is there for the majestic Vautour, which has already won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and the JLT Novices' Chase. Bobs Worth's treble came in three-mile-plus events, the Albert Bartlett, the RSA and the Gold Cup, whereas Flyingbolt landed the two-mile Supreme Novices', Arkle Trophy and Champion Chase.
As such, should Vautour contest the Gold Cup rather than the Ryanair Chase, he would be vying for a unique hat-trick over the full range of the Festival's modern-day championship distances.
That prospect has still to be definitively confirmed, as the seven-year-old's owner Rich Ricci must weigh up whether to allow both him and last year's runner-up Djakadam to tackle the Gold Cup, with Vroum Vroum Mag also an option for the Ryanair.
"He was ridden out this morning and I'm very happy with him," Mullins of Vautour. "I'll make up my mind where to go with him next."
In Vautour's absence, Mullins has Ballycasey and Mozoltov to choose from in Saturday's Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park, while Rocky Creek is the 13/8 favourite to claim Newbury's Grade Two Betfair Denman Chase. His trainer Paul Nicholls also expects to unleash the champion chaser Dodging Bullets on the same card.
Gowran's €45,000 two-and-a-half-mile Grade Two has attracted just six entries, although Henry De Bromhead's Smashing, Pat Fahy's Morning Assembly and Elliott's The Game Changer could help to maintain a decent level of quality.
It is a similar story in the card's equivalent hurdle, with Mullins' Sempre Medici among six potential starters, though the other five entries in that two-miler are rated all of 15lb or more lower than the recent Naas winner.
At Navan on Sunday, Mullins has given the exciting Black Hercules an entry along with four others in the Ten Up Novices' Chase, while his stayer Sambremont has been given put in that, as well as the two-mile equivalent named in honour of Flyingbolt.
He has put Dicosimo and Kalkir in the Boyne Hurdle, in which he could face an old inmate in Val De Ferbet. A Grade Two winner for him last March, Val De Ferbet is now in the care of retired jockey Andrew McNamara, who would be having his first runner in his new guise as a trainer.
Elliott's Prince Of Scars and Sandra Hughes' fellow Gigginstown Stud-owned Grade One winner Lieutenant Colonel are Grade One winners in the two-mile-five-furlong affair.
The ground at both weekend venues is heavy, as it is for Thurles tomorrow.
Today's rescheduled Limerick card was cancelled on Monday, while across the water Ludlow is also off, as is tomorrow's Taunton spread.
Added yesterday to Mullins' British entries for Saturday were the classy Thomas Hobson, Open Eagle and Morning Run at Warwick.