Vautour de force for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh
Vautour roared to favouritism for next year's Gold Cup after bouncing right back to his brilliant best to win the JLT Novices' Chase by a wide margin at the Cheltenham Festival.
An impressive winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last season, the Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old seemingly had a question to answer having been beaten at Christmas, but the market vibes were strong.
But he never missed a beat under Ruby Walsh and put in some spectacular leaps on the way round, having his rivals in trouble from some way out.
Stablemate Valseur Lido briefly looked a threat, along with Apache Stronghold and Ptit Zig, but Vautour sprinted clear off the home turn and the 6-4 favourite put 15 lengths distance between himself and the rest.
Apache Stronghold just upheld form with Valseur Lido in second, although in truth there was only one in it.
Mullins said: "I've loved this horse all the time, but I had to really work hard at him for the last three weeks.
"We were probably minding him too much earlier in the season.
"I thought the race was over turning for home, it was just a case of jumping, and he absolutely flew over the last two.
"He was good the first day, but then things went wrong at Christmas. He won the last day and then I've been very hard on him to try and get him back in last year's form. He's just turned a corner, but he needed all that hard work.
"He's strong enough for soft ground, but probably better ground suits him."
RaceBets make Vautour the 4-1 favourite from 12-1 for the 2015 Gold Cup.
And Mullins confirmed he absolutely sees his star as a horse for the blue riband.
He said: "Everyone left Cheltenham last year talking about Faugheen, but this horse is a machine.
"He was wrong at Christmas. Faugheen won a Champion Hurdle, but I think this horse could be better. He's a fantastic horse.
"He's gone and won by 15 lengths from a top field of horses. You can't get much better than that, I don't think.
"We'll go down the Gold Cup route with him. He could go for a lot of races. Faugheen has won a Champion Hurdle, why couldn't he?
"I thought coming out of here last year he was the best horse. I told everybody that.
"That was my opinion last year. After a performance like that, who knows?
"Punchestown has to be the next plan. I won't be putting any of them away."
He went on: "Ruby came in absolutely buzzing. He's as high as the horse!
"We felt there was a lot more in him this season to get him back to where he was.
"Every day we've had him out we've worked him hard and it's paid off. When you do that you might break them and risk injury, but it's what he needed. He probably has so much ability, when he's working with other horses he only has to do 80 per cent.
"I thought it was a spectacular performance. It was put to bed on the home bend and all he had to do was jump the last two. I can't imagine what Ruby was thinking after what happened to Annie Power, but he was very positive.
"He's good enough for the Gold Cup. People will be wondering 'will he stay', but I think he will. We'll definitely be going the Gold Cup route."
Walsh said: "He wasn't right at Christmas, but from the first time we started schooling him I was taken with him.
"He jumped like a gazelle. He was flawless. He just ran them ragged.
"This lad has it all. He was going his own speed - I'm taken with him. There's some summer dreaming to be done with this one."
Owner Rich Ricci said: "I can't ever remember seeing a novice jump like that at Cheltenham.
"He's a different horse round here, for some reason.
"It was unbelievable, breathtaking, actually.
"We'll step up in distance next season and see where we go."
Paul Nicholls was happy enough with the efforts of Irish Saint (fourth) and Ptit Zig (fifth), but feels both will benefit from a step up in trip in due course.
He said: "They both really want three miles. We weren't going to come here with Irish Saint but we thought there's a month between now and Aintree and he will now go over three miles there.
"That was the fastest going Ptit Zig's run on, he was going OK until he made a mistake and that put him on the back foot."
Apache Stronghold's trainer Noel Meade was left in awe of Vautour.
He said: "He ran a cracker. The winner is a very, very good horse, though. As some said as he came in, he's an aeroplane.
"We were sort of left in no man's land really after Christmas and I still wasn't sure I was doing the right thing by bringing him back to two and a half miles.
"It turns out we would have had a better chance of beating Don Poli (in RSA Chase) than we would have of beating him anyway!
"I'd imagine he'll be kept to longer distances next year.
"One thing's for certain, wherever he's (Vautour) going, we won't be!"