Vautour poised to complete Festival treble
Rerouted Gold Cup fancy should have too much quality to land competitive Ryanair Chase for Mullins-Walsh axis
So majestic at each of the past two Cheltenham Festivals, Vautour faces some stern competition in his quest for a hat-trick in the Ryanair Chase.
Sure, he is odds-on to secure the £300,000 Grade One that shares top billing with the World Hurdle.
However, when the goalposts were controversially moved at the 11th hour on Tuesday morning, the question marks that recently hung over his home work again resurfaced.
In eschewing the Gold Cup, Rich Ricci suggested that Vautour might only be operating at 90pc.
If there is substance to that assessment, then the gallant King George VI Chase runner-up may have to work harder for Ruby Walsh than he has ever done here before.
Thus far, Willie Mullins's deeply exciting son of Robin Des Champs has made a mockery of the Cotswold Festival's status as the sport's most rigorous battleground.
He will certainly be in his element back over what might well be his optimum trip, but so too may Noel Meade's Road To Riches, whose third in last year's Gold Cup was no mean feat.
The flashy Henry de Bromhead-trained grey Smashing, Enda Bolger's Gilgamboa and previous Festival heroes Dynaste, Taquin Du Seuil and Al Ferof all have something to offer.
Village Vic is another that has built up an affinity for Prestbury Park and Valseur Lido will share with Road To Riches the job of providing owner Michael O'Leary with an elusive win in the race that he has sponsored for 10 years. Indeed, the Ryanair has yet to be won by any Irish-based horse.
Of course, O'Leary has also stepped in to promote the World Hurdle. He will be represented by Mouse Morris's Alpha Des Obeaux in the older Grade One, which has been plundered just once by a raider in the past 20 years.
As a result, O'Leary now has two opportunities to win back some of his own money. Few men would be happier about that predicament than the famously thrifty airline chief.
1.30 Grade One JLT Novices' Chase 2m 4f
Black Hercules is an interesting runner. He always looked a stayer, but he races keenly.
It would have been three from three over fences had he not exited at the final fence at Navan last time, and he has had the measure of some fair animals. If he were to get into a rhythm in front, he might take some stopping.
Outlander is also a real contender. He is unbeaten in three and seems to relish the trip, beating Monksland and Pont Alexandre to win a first Grade One at Leopardstown last month.
Sixth in last year's Neptune, he was a smart hurdler but is a better chaser. A similar comment applies to Zabana, which was conceding five pounds to Aux Ptits Soins when a neck second in the 2015 Coral Cup.
He was well behind Outlander last time but has the scope to do better yet. Garde La Victoire and Bristol De Mai are both serious animals. Richard Johnson's mount Garde La Victoire has won its last four - three over fences - and also three on the spin here. He gave Bristol De Mai five pounds and a beating at Uttoxeter in October, and his form in general is very solid.
Bristol De Mai has progressed since stepping up in trip. He dominated his opposition for a third time on the spin to win a first Grade One at Sandown.
There will be no easy lead here and he may prefer some cut, but he is on an upward curve.
Verdict: Garde La Victoire feared but Outlander (Nap) has lots in his favour.
2.10 Pertemps Final (Handicap Hurdle) 3m
Leave At Dawn won snugly here in November off 124. He qualified for this when fifth at Leopardstown and, in a first-time hood, races off 137 now. That still might not be his measure.
Cup Final, also JP McManus's, is also unexposed. He is seven pounds higher than when winning for a second time at Musselburgh, when this sort of trip seemed to suit.
Taglietelle was third at Musselburgh and fourth in the 2015 Coral Cup, but he looks handicapped to the hilt.
Oscar Sam is 11lbs higher than when second to Rathpatrick at Punchestown. He had won three previously and tends to run his race. Missed Approach and Arpege D'Alene are also unexposed.
Verdict: A chance is taken on Leave At Dawn still having something in hand.
2.50 Grade One Ryanair Chase 2m 5f
If Vautour is on song, then he is the outstanding candidate in this. Such an emphatic winner of the Supreme and the JLT the past two years, he emerged with plenty credit when chinned by Cue Card in the King George VI Chase.
He jumped to his left then, so he will be happier here. As a horse that has seemed to bloom at this meeting in the spring, he will be more effective on this better ground and the trip is ideal.
Road To Riches also strikes as being ideally suited to this race. Connections like to ride him forcefully, which makes life hard for him over further, as evidenced by the manner of his Hennessy Gold Cup reversal. His 2014 Galway Plate triumph was one of his best performances, and another bold turn can be expected in similar conditions.
Valseur Lido blew his Hennessy chance by unseating at the final fence. While he couldn't lay a glove on Vautour last year, he is clearly well, though his trainer is adamant that he would be best suited by further.
Gilgamboa is a Grade One-winning novice at this trip. He has been operating below his best this term but better ground here will suit, which might not be the case with Smashing. The grey likes to front-run and may not be able to dominate, although he did run well from off the pace in the 2014 Coral Cup.
The 2011 Supreme winner Al Ferof is in the veteran stage now. Third in the King George, he will probably find a couple too strong again.
Dynaste hasn't won since landing this in 2014. It's hard to see him doing so again, but his latest second to Silviniaco Conti was a fair effort.
The same year's JLT winner Taquin Du Seuil falls into a similar bracket, while Village Vic has belatedly improved. He is on a hat-trick after winning here in November and December. How far more he can progress is hard to say and he is a likeable sort, but he is still rated 19lbs lower than Vautour.
Kempton winner Josses Hill has been placed here the past two years behind Vautour and Un De Sceaux. He should run well again.
Verdict: Vautour, even at 90pc, can still win a race of considerable depth.
3.30 Grade One Ryanair World Hurdle 3m
Thistlecrack ran out a decisive winner of the Cleeve Hurdle to complete a hat-trick. He hasn't looked back since finishing second to Killultagh Vic at Punchestown last year, having also won an Aintree Grade One previously.
There is an awful lot to like about a horse that has thrived since stepping up to this trip.
Last year's victor Cole Harden will be happier back on a decent surface.
There was an element of surprise about his win here a year ago, and he might not get a soft lead this time. He was well held by Thistlecrack at Newbury in November but should run his race. Martello Tower won the 2015 Albert Bartlett.
He hasn't been at the same level this term, latterly 13 lengths behind Alpha Des Obeaux in deep ground at Gowran Park. It is possible that he could do better again, though his best form is on softer ground.
Alpha Des Obeaux was giving Thistlecrack plenty of it when he crashed at the final flight at Aintree, though he looked booked for second.
That apart, his Gowran win brought a run of five other seconds to an end, and you are sure to get a run for your money here, with the going arguably in his favour.
Un Temps Pout Tout would be a fascinating runner. He was a decisive winner on Tuesday, and the last time he ran over flights he beat Thousand Stars 10 lengths in a French Grade One. It might be unwise to underestimate him.
Lieutenant Colonel and At Fishers Cross are classy stayers at their best, while Bobs Worth looks past his best. Aux Ptit Soins hasn't run since winning the 2015 Coral Cup on his debut for Paul Nicholls, so this will be tough, although he clearly goes well fresh. Saphir Du Rheu and Whisper have plenty to prove.
Verdict: Alpha Des Obeaux can go close but Thistlecrack should win.
4.10 Grade Three Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Handicap Chase 2m 5f
Johns Spirit is two pounds lower than when successful here for a third time in 2014. He has been labouring on deep ground so will be happier now, though he is at his best in the autumn.
Fingal Bay won the 2014 Pertemps off 148. Fourth in the Hennessy Gold Cup off 144, he is down to 141 now and will also appreciate the ground, as will Ballycasey. He is a bit soft but potentially quite well handicapped.
Verdict: Odds of 12/1 about Fingal Bay are too big to ignore.
4.50 Grade Two Trull House Stud Mares' Novices' Hurdle 2m
Limini might not be the most fluent jumper but she clearly has an engine. A triple French bumper winner, she won a decent Punchestown maiden and returned in January to dispense with inferior mares at Fairyhouse.
Bloody Mary is precocious but was more workmanlike than impressive on her British bow, while Smart Talk accounted for Morning Run at Doncaster. Four from six over hurdles, she has plenty experience so that will stand to her. Of the rest, Chocca Wocca has a touch of quality and represents blue-chip connections.
Verdict: Chances are that Limini will prove too strong.
5.30 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase 3m 2f
Cause Of Causes was second off 140 in 2014 and won last year's four-miler. He has been out of sorts on softer ground since, but, now that he gets more suitable conditions, he will be thereabouts off 142.
Sambremont is the Mullins selection. He had sufficient quality to capitalise when opportunity presented itself in a two-mile Grade Two at Navan, so he is interesting back up in trip now.
Doctor Harper was second to Garde La Victoire at Ludlow before dancing up over two miles at Leicester. He won an Aintree hurdle over three miles off 138 and is potentially well treated off 141.
Upswing also warrants respect for Jonjo O'Neill and Derek O'Connor, while The Giant Bolster loves it here and will give Finny Maguire a decent spin.
Verdict: Doctor Harper (nb) appeals for an in-form David Pipe team.