Willie Mullins sends Vautour on retrieval mission
Exciting novice set to run on Sunday and bypass Irish Arkle
Willie Mullins is poised to make full use of the programme book after entering Vautour in a Grade Two novices' chase at Leopardstown on Sunday, a race in which last year's Cheltenham Festival hero could theoretically face his Christmas conqueror Clarcam.
However, the Gordon Elliott-trained Clarcam is more likely to wait a week longer for the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novices' Chase at the Foxrock venue. He is Elliott's only entry in the €80,000 Grade One and he remains Gigginstown Stud's leading player in the two-mile category, while bookmaker Paddy Power hasn't even priced him up for Sunday's race, for which they make Vautour a 2/7 favourite.
The champion trainer, who is responsible for four of the 10 Arkle entries, is expected to use the big race on Sunday week to test his insatiable front-runner Un De Sceaux at the highest level for a first time.
The Edward O'Connell-owned seven-year-old is as short as 4/5 favourite with a run for the Arkle, and he also heads the ante-post betting for the Cheltenham equivalent on March 10, for which he is the 2/1 market leader.
Vautour, in contrast, is as big as 8/1 for the Cheltenham contest, yet he is as low as 7/2 for the meeting's JLT Novices' Chase over five furlongs further.
He stepped up to two-and-a-half miles to claim a third Grade One at Punchestown in the spring, so it is maybe no surprise that Mullins is understood to be seriously considering running him in Sunday's two-mile-three-furlong €37,500 event.
Typically, though, solving one conundrum only leads to another. Mullins has five of the 10 entries in the race, the others being Valseur Lido, Adriana Des Mottes, Gitane Du Berlais and Val De Ferbet. Gigginstown's Valseur Lido, in particular, is a similarly heavyweight contender following his facile success in the Drinmore at Fairyhouse.
He chases Vautour in the JLT betting at as low as 5/1, while he is available at double-figure odds for the RSA Chase over three miles, a trip he has yet to try. In that context, it is interesting that Mullins has also given him the option of tackling Saturday's three-mile Woodlands Park 100 Club Novices' Chase at Naas, with the stable's stylish Fairyhouse maiden winner Val De Ferbet also engaged in that Grade Two.
Should Valseur Lido, which has next month's Dr PJ Moriarty Chase at Leopardstown as another potential target, run on Saturday and win again, he would surely leapfrog Don Poli as Mullins and Gigginstown's chief prospect over three miles.
At Fairyhouse, he slammed Apache Stronghold by five lengths more than Don Poli did when landing a Leopardstown Grade One over the trip on December 29, and the notion of stepping Don Poli up for Cheltenham's four-mile amateur riders' race has been mooted.
Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown firm has traditionally sought to spread its riches to maximise its chances of winning as many races as possible at the four-day March festival, so running plans over the next few weeks should provide valuable pointers.
While, on the one hand, the possible absence of the Rich Ricci-owned Vautour from Leopardstown's Arkle might deny punters a mouth-watering clash with his classy stablemate Un De Sceaux and a rematch with Clarcam in a race that is also likely to feature Enda Bolger's highly promising Gilgamboa, it could save Mullins having to pit two of his most talented novices against each other.
It would also save Ruby Walsh the unenviable task of choosing between two such precocious mounts, and there is no denying that, should Clarcam not turn up, Sunday's race would be a decent opportunity to repair the confidence of Vautour, which made a crucial mistake as Clarcam began piling on the pressure last time.
Tony Martin's Ted Veale dead-heated with Vautour that day, and he and the Mouse Morris-trained Real Steel - which was behind the pair in fourth - are also entered again on Sunday. Martin has given himself the option of asking Ted Veale to carry top-weight of 11st 4lb in the card's featured €100,000 Boylesports Hurdle, although the eight-year-old hasn't run over flights since finishing eighth in the 2013 Galway Hurdle.
Mullins is responsible for three of just four other horses currently allotted more than 11st in the prestigious two-mile handicap, namely Analifet, Dane King and Lucky Bridle. His other candidate, Clondaw Warrior, is in off 10st, and he is the shortest of the Closutton contingent in the betting at 12/1.
The JP McManus-owned duo of Snake Eyes and Waxies Dargle vie for the market lead at 9/1. In the programme's correspondingly valuable handicap chase, Mullins' Djakadam, which won the Grade Two chase a year ago, just shades favouritism at 6/1 ahead of Ted Walsh's Foxrock.
Meanwhile, well-known Australian trainer Peter Moody faces an uncertain future after it was revealed that one of his horses, Lidari, tested posted for a prohibited substance called cobalt after finishing second in a Group One at Flemington in October.
Moody shot to international prominence with the unbeaten sprinting sensation Black Caviar, a 15-time Group One winner that made a successful European foray when just holding on in a dramatic finish to the 2012 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Reports emerging from Australia suggest that Moody could face a mandatory three-year ban if convicted of administering cobalt chloride, which is described as a blood booster that has similar effects to EPO, the scourge of sports such as athletics and cycling.
The Australian Racing Board recently published a threshold level for cobalt of 200 micrograms per litre in urine, as it is a "naturally occurring trace element which may normally be present in horses at very low levels as a result of the ingestion of feedstuffs that contain it in trace amounts," and that it is "also present in the structure of vitamin B12".
However, the ARB reiterates that cobalt has performance-enhancing qualities, and Moody has issued a statement declaring his innocence in relation to the positive test.
"I am devastated to be informed by Racing Victoria Stewards that one of my runners has tested positive to a banned substance during the 2014 spring carnival," he said. "I have no knowledge or understanding as to how this could occur and will work with the Racing Victoria Integrity Services Department to bring this matter to a conclusion as soon as possible."