Crack stayer looks ready to justify Tizzard faith
The staying hurdle division has been the one discipline that has not been dominated by Willie Mullins this season in the build-up to the Cheltenham Festival and has been ruled instead by the Dorset-based Thistlecrack, which attempts to set the seal on a brilliant campaign by winning the World Hurdle today.
It is hard, if not impossible, to find a chink in his armour. Successful on all three of his starts over the winter, by an aggregate of 26 lengths, he jumps well, stays well and appears to have plenty left in the tank at the end of his races. All ground, within reason, seems to come alike to him.
Baracouda (two wins), Inglis Drever (three) and Big Buck's (four) have all made this race their own for a spell in recent times, so supporters of last year's winner, Cole Harden, can be encouraged, especially with the drying ground in his favour.
Thistlecrack (3.30), on the other hand, will not be back for another crack at the World Hurdle next year whatever the outcome this afternoon; his trainer, Colin Tizzard, is already thinking about running him as a novice chaser in the 2017 Gold Cup.
The main Irish threat is likely to come from Alpha Des Obeaux, a solid winner at Gowran Park last time and trained by Mouse Morris, a perennial Festival visitor with a happy knack of getting his raiders to run above themselves on the big day.
There was a real possibility at one stage of Mullins running either Annie Power or Vroum Vroum Mag against Thistlecrack until the forced withdrawals of Faugheen and Arctic Fire from the Champion Hurdle prompted him to move his Cheltenham chess pieces around the board and play his queens on Tuesday, to devastating effect.
As it turns out, he does not have a runner here at all.
Controversially, Mullins and owner Rich Ricci switched Vautour to today's Ryanair Chase only on Tuesday, upsetting punters who had been led to believe all along he was going to run in tomorrow's Gold Cup.
This is the Ryanair Chase's gain. Introduced in 2005 over a compromise distance of two miles, five furlongs, notionally for horses not quite fast enough for the Champion Chase or lacking the stamina for the Gold Cup, the race has also served as an easier option for those not quite up to either of the traditional championship contests.
Vautour, a spectacular winner at the last two Festivals, and Road To Riches, third in last year's Gold Cup (and still among 10 acceptors for tomorrow's renewal) and running here principally because he was considered just behind Don Cossack and Don Poli in owner Gigginstown House Stud's pecking order this time, have made this a vintage renewal.
Ricci raised a few eyebrows when he implied that the reason Vautour (2.50) would miss the Gold Cup was that he was only "90 per cent".
If so, why is he running at Cheltenham at all? But even if not at his very best, he should be good enough to win this over what is probably his best distance.
Nigel Twiston-Davies might have that decision to make - Ryanair Chase or Gold Cup - next year with Bristol De Mai (1.30).
Improving The precocious grey five-year-old faces no easy task in the JLT Novices' Chase, but has looked better and better with every run and if he keeps on improving could go right to the top.
No owner has a better Festival record than JP McManus and he would even appear to have something of a stranglehold on the notoriously competitive Pertemps Handicap Hurdle, with three of his six runners heading the market.
If In Doubt (2.10), back in form over hurdles, may fare best of them on what could be a big day for trainer Philip Hobbs and jockey Richard Johnson, especially if first-time blinkers have the desired effect on Fingal Bay (4.10) in the Brown Handicap Chase. (© Independent News Service)