Fancied Vautour has pedigree to go the distance
It was over the Christmas period three years ago that Bobs Worth managed to enhance his Gold Cup claims by staying tucked up at home in Seven Barrows while all other assorted Cheltenham Gold Cup adversaries were covering themselves in something well short of glory at Kempton and Leopardstown.
While we cannot with certainty predict the outcome of events over the upcoming Christmas racing festivals, it is practically certain that some will consolidate their Gold Cup claims further while others will falter. With defending champion Coneygree almost guaranteed to forfeit his crown through injury, all pretenders this Christmas will be appearing to throw their hats in the general direction of the empty throne. Even Smad Place, electrifying winner of the Hennessy, is being reconsidered for the King George VI Chase, having been ruled out immediately after Newbury.
A bellwether for the health of Irish racing is the fact that the two horses heading the market for the King George are both trained here. A further indicator of the state of the nation is that Don Cossack and Vautour are owned by two of Ireland's pre-eminent owners in Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House and Rich Ricci - mega-wealthy businessmen who have chosen Ireland exclusively as their unique centre of operations.
The fact that two Irish horses spearhead Britain's traditional mid-season landmark championship chase is significant when you consider that only two Irish horses (Florida Pearl and Kicking King) have won the King George VI since Captain Christy 40 years ago; and that before 1975 the only other Irish-trained animals to carry home one of the UK's flagship contests came in the guise of Arkle and Cottage Rake.
In spite of Don Cossack being officially rated the higher of the Irish market leaders on 175, it is Vautour that has generated the most reverence. His headline 15-length demolition of a high-class field in the Grade One Golden Miller at the Cheltenham Festival had most onlookers drooling and the King George was instantly nominated as an obvious mid-way target for this season. The six-year-old has had just the one appearance since, at Ascot last month, and it provoked a Marmite reaction among the cognoscenti.
The naysayers pinpointed the fact that, in his first-ever right-handed steeplechase appearance, he continually veered left-handed at his fences and that a one-and-three-quarter-length defeat of P'tit Zig in receipt of 5lbs actually makes P'tit Zig the better horse on the day strictly on the formbook. The fact that P'tit Zig is available at 40/1 in some quarters for the Kempton showpiece, with Vautour no bigger than 3/1, only betrays how far below the real Vautour his Ascot reappearance is perceived to have been. Interestingly, while Ascot was Vautour's first-ever appearance right-handed over the larger obstacles, his two least convincing performances over hurdles both came at Punchestown - once at the April Festival when he could conceivably have been under the weather, but also in January last year when he just scraped home by three quarters of a length in a Grade Two.
The other imponderable about Vautour is his stamina for his first attempt beyond 21 furlongs. The hypothesis about Kempton as an easy three miles has long since been exposed as a fallacy because of the increased tempo and with the likes of stamina-laden Silviniaco Conti, Smad Place and the free-wheeling Cue Card in the line-up Kempton will be no place next Saturday for the fragile stayer. Many high-class two-and-a-half-milers have been left strewn across Feltham down the years as their stamina batteries blinked up the home straight.
Think back to Azertyuiop attempting the step up in trip in 2004. The Arkle winner's stamina had palpably given out by the time he entered the straight and he was beaten a very long way into third behind Kicking King. Further back, memory is drawn to Remittance Man in 1991. A brilliant two-and-a-half-miler, he was unbeaten in seven chase starts before being sent off favourite in the 1991 King George. He too failed to see out the distance and finished third.
He went on to win his next six consecutive races - but he never tried three miles again. A look back through the annals of the race that began life in 1937 reveals a sorry trail of disappointment for those attempting the unknown territory of three miles for the first time.
Dunkirk fell fatally when taking on the mighty Arkle in 1965. Champions like Anaglog's Daughter, Royal Relief, Barnbrook Again, Deep Sensation, Flagship Uberalles and Voy Por Ustedes all tried to up their game when they upped their distance and all fell short.
A peek at Vautour's pedigree, however, gives plenty of grounds for optimism regarding the distance. His sire Robin Des Champs is also the sire of other Mullins stalwarts Sir Des Champs and Quevega, as well as Un Temps Pour Tout, winner of the Grande Course de Haies at Auteuil over nearly 26 furlongs in bottomless conditions earlier this year. Vautour is the fourth winner for his dam Gazelle De Mai, a prolific race-winning mare who won 20 of her 39 starts. Her three other winners to date have been an assortment, but does include a cross-country winner in France.
In his Christmas newspaper column last year, Ruby Walsh bemoaned having to go to Kempton last Boxing Day as follows: "It will literally break my heart to leave Vautour behind at Leopardstown." This time around, at least, Vautour goes with the kit.
Sunday Indo Sport