Vautour can add to legacy in Melling Chase
A grade one double for Willie Mullins on an absorbing opening day of the Grand National meeting has put the champion trainer into a strong position in his assault on the British crown.
Last night, he was less than £25,000 shy of Paul Nicholls, whose ability to chip away at the day-to-day fixtures like he did at Taunton yesterday illustrates that the duel will likely go all the way to the Sandown finale.
Today, Mullins and his aides will saddle 16 runners at Aintree, spearheaded by the brilliant Vautour, while he has four to Nicholls's six in tomorrow's £1m Crabbie's Grand National.
There was a bit of musical chairs after the final National declarations were made, with Ruby Walsh swapping from Boston Bob to Sir Des Champs, leaving Paul Townend to partner the Bobbyjo Chase winner and Katie Walsh on Ballycasey.
Bryan Cooper also changed horses at the 11th hour, trading Mouse Morris's chasing maiden Rule The World for the Irish Grand National-winning handler's veteran First Lieutenant.
As a result, David Mullins was switched to Rule The World.
Barry Geraghty has opted for last year's Jonjo O'Neill-trained fifth Shutthefrontdoor of JP McManus's four, while Denis O'Regan is on the luckless 2015 faller, The Druids Nephew.
In different version of musical chairs, the stylish Youghal man has been named as successor to his fellow Co Cork native Adrian Heskin in the role of retained rider to Barry Connell.
O'Regan, a gifted rider whose trajectory has plateaued in Britain, assumes the role as of now, but is not expected to relocate until later in the year.
As for more immediate matters, Vautour shouldn't have much trouble adding to his prolific record in the JLT Melling Chase.
On official ratings, he has between 14lbs and 22lbs to spare over his five rivals, so this really should be a straightforward case of Mullins adding the £112,260 win prize to his tally.
A simply exceptional specimen, the Robin Des Champs seven-year-old defied stable concerns about his well-being to run out a facile winner of the Ryanair Chase.
He might not have beaten Road To Riches as far as he had done in 2015, but he still stamped his stunning superiority all over the opposition.
Here, he is dropping slightly in trip to an extended two miles and three furlongs, but pace certainly isn't something that he lacks.
As with everything else coming from Cheltenham, the three-week break is shorter than ideal for Walsh's mount but, like Annie Power, Vautour didn't have an especially hard race.
You would hope that he will arrive here at the top of his game, and he has always thrived in the spring and is best going-left handed.
Of the others, maybe Vibrato Valtat or Clarcam would capitalise should anything go amiss.
A year ago, Clarcam beat Vibrato Valtat in the Manifesto Novices' Chase.
Gordon Elliott's charge comes here after a break and Vibrato Valtat fell in the Ryanair before being asked for an effort, so both are fresh, though they are not in the same league as Vautour, a superb animal that we can only hope to soon see tested once again in more challenging company.
Intriguingly, Mullins thrusts Limini into open company for the two-mile Grade One novices' hurdle.
Receiving seven pounds, she might be up to the task, and Elliott's Ball D'Arc is another among a decent-looking Irish quintet. Still, Nicky Henderson's Buveur D´Air gets the nod. A staying-on third to Altior in the Supreme, the Noel Fehily-ridden five-year-old is a fair prospect.
Mullins and Geraghty get the nod to take the opening handicap hurdle with Blazer, while he and Walsh look overpriced at 12/1 to land the three-mile Grade One novices' hurdle.
They combine for Bellshill in this, and the return to a staying trip is expected to favour the Supreme also-ran, which was just denied here by Barters Hill in last year's bumper.
In its first three starts over flights, Bellshill won by an aggregate 26 lengths, including Grade Two and Grade One victories in testing ground over two-and-a-half miles.
He was then dropped in trip to no effect, and the suspicion is that he is crying out for this sort of test. The six-year-old is owned by Graham Wylie, and the same firm could take this year's edition of the Champion Bumper with Battleford.
He was thwarted by Ballyandy after leading a long way from home at Cheltenham and can gain some vengeance now.
Selections: 1.40 Blazer; 2.15 Buveur D´Air; 2.50 Blaklion; 3.25 Vautour; 4.05 Rathlin; 4.40 Bellshill; 5.15 Battleford