Vautour fails to dazzle but Mullins star can still soar
Vautour was probably always going to struggle to live up to the hype at Ascot on Saturday.
At Cheltenham in March, his breathtaking win earned him a record high rating for a novice chaser of 171, a distinction that was topped by Coneygree's Gold Cup heroics.
Of course, Coneygree's 172 rating was achieved in more absolute fashion, as he demolished senior opposition in the Gold Cup. Vautour was kept to novice company, but the visual impression and form of his JLT triumph were irrefutable.
Coneygree duly lived up to his billing on his return, annihilating inferior rivals at Sandown. Happily, it now seems likely that we will get to see him in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday, after Sara Bradstock revealed that he appeared sound after a crucial gallop yesterday morning.
Vautour failed to quite live up to stratospheric expectations in winning at Ascot, with the 159-rated Ptit Zig getting nearly 17 lengths closer off five pounds worse terms than he had done in March. However, Ptit Zig ran at Cheltenham on the back of a fall and it showed, so his performance was compromised.
At Ascot, his confidence was restored and he was race-fit after his demolition of Clarcam - which, in turn, was a race-fit dual Grade One winner - on his Down Royal return. Paul Nicholls had Ptit Zig tuned to a nicety, so it would be unwise to read too much into his ruffling Vautour's feathers, other than to acknowledge that he is a better horse than the bare form in March indicated and that he is improving.
Crucially, he pulled 33 lengths clear of Third Intention, which is rated 160.
There was no shame, then, in Vautour having to knuckle down to shake Ptit Zig off, but the most pertinent thing is that he did knuckle down. He remains a serious talent, and now we know pretty definitively that he isn't a Flash Harry without the stomach for a battle, which is imperative.
Willie Mullins has stressed over the past couple of years that he sees Cheltenham in March as a first major target. Of course, his horses farm Grade Ones at Christmas and so on, but he endeavours to have them peaking in the spring, a point maybe tenuously illustrated by the fact that he has won nine Hennessy Gold Cups in February yet never won a Lexus Chase in December.
Mullins opted to avoid the Betfair Chase completely and seven of his 12 Drinmore Chase entries for Sunday haven't jumped a fence in public.
In 2010, Mikael D'Haguenet had his first start over fences for Mullins in the Fairyhouse Grade One, so watch that space. The point is, Vautour won't have been remotely wound up for Ascot.
While he reached for a couple of fences and went to his left a little, there was nothing in his performance that gave cause for concern. A similar comment may or may not apply to Faugheen, which hung in defeat at Punchestown. To these eyes, the reigning Champion Hurdler has always looked more of a stayer that simply ground his rivals into submission over two miles, and he was gaining on Nichols Canyon at the line last week.
His jumping is often not as fluent as it should be and he doesn't possess the turn of foot that some of the best two-milers might, so he may continue to be vulnerable if horses put it up to him. Then again, there won't be too many capable of that, and most of those that could are stablemates.
Vautour's position at the head of the Gold Cup betting has long been one of potential over proven substance. As such, he did nothing to undermine his status at Ascot.
Notwithstanding that some of the marquee names could switch to the Ryanair Chase, there is incredible depth to the staying division, and Cue Card's renaissance adds an unlikely strand of intrigue. In the year of the equine comeback, his Haydock victory was striking.
Silviniaco Conti might still lack 100pc sharpness, but the Colin Tizzard-trained Cue Card - under a brilliantly canny ride from Paddy Brennan - settled well, travelled easily, fenced brilliantly and stayed on determinedly.
The Tizzard stable star is rising 10 years of age, but he clearly had serious problems last term. He is fully entitled to a fourth crack at the King George VI Chase and he has a fine record at Cheltenham in March, so it will be fascinating to see how he progresses now.
In the meantime, Mullins has indicated that Un De Sceaux is more likely to contest the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown on December 5 rather than the Hilly Way Chase at Cork, which might be Vroum Vroum Mag's target.
With Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, Vibrato Valtat and Sire De Grugy in the Tingle Creek mix, it should be some test for the exceptional two-mile novice. Unfortunately, Rich Ricci has suggested that Annie Power suffered a slight setback that could rule her out of Sunday's Hatton's Grace. That would be disappointing, likewise that she might not run until Cheltenham in March, should she miss Fairyhouse.
Worse still, Ricci hinted that an interrupted schedule might dictate that the mares' hurdle would be her chief objective, the inference being that he would have preferred a stab at the World Hurdle. He won't be alone in ruing that consequence.
smashing lives up to expectations
Smashing looks poised for a step up in class and down in trip after a convincing reappearance win at Gowran Park on Saturday.
Henry De Bromhead's flashy grey readily justified short odds under Jonathan Burke in the two-and-a-half-mile conditions race, and he could now tackle Leopardstown's two-mile Grade One.
Monksland also ran out a decisive winner of the beginners' chase for Sean Flanagan. Noel Meade's classy hurdler made one horrendous blunder with a circuit to go, virtually failing to take off. However, he stayed straight, thus giving Flanagan a chance.
It was a welcome first win for the jockey-trainer duo. Meade has been keen to utilise Flanagan during Paul Carberry's absence and sees the potential of an excellent rider who had threatened to fall between the cracks. Bryan Cooper also earned plaudits for his role in preventing Robbie Power from getting dragged when they both crashed at the second-last flight in the maiden hurdle.
Power's leg got tangled in his stirrup strap, and, had Cooper not reacted as quickly as he did to stop the horse from bolting, he could have been in real trouble.
Tweet of the weekend
Hannah Bishop (@HannahBishop79)
Sad to wake up the news that John Goggin has lost his fight. All our thoughts are with his family & the Team at Barbury Castle stables.
Bishop, racing manager to the owners of Alan King's Paddy Power Chase winner Annacotty, reveals that Goggin died on Saturday night.
A Bantry native, Goggin had been in a coma since his car was involved in a collision a week earlier.
"He was one of the nicest, most genuine guys you could ever meet," said amateur rider Stephen O'Donovan of Goggin. "I helped him get a job with Alan when he was 18 in 2012, and he made friends easily. He wanted nothing only to be a jockey and this is a tragedy that will hit Marlborough as much as it will west Cork. Everyone is devastated."
22 Number of cinemas around the country at which Being AP, a fly-on-the-wall documentary that profiles AP McCoy during his final season in the saddle, will be screened this evening. The film, which starts at 6.10, will be followed by a live satellite Q & A session between McCoy and Clare Balding. Further details can be found on goracing.ie's press page.