Shock as Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci reroute Vautour to Ryanair Chase
Owner Rich Ricci has apologised to any punters who are feeling "let down" following the decision to run Vautour in the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival on Thursday rather than in the Timico Gold Cup a day later.
Ricci has been widely reported to have said Vautour would run in the Gold Cup or not at all at Cheltenham at a preview evening earlier this month - a statement the owner does not deny.
However, Ricci said the thought process behind rerouting the Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old to the extended two-and-a-half-mile Ryanair Chase was made "in the best interests of the horse".
He told At The Races: "The Gold Cup has been the plan all season - I know I've said that - and my feeling was that if he was working well enough to run in a Ryanair, why wouldn't he be working well enough to run in a Gold Cup?
"It turns out he's not been doing cartwheels, I've been very clear about that in the run up to the race, but we felt we'd take our chance in the Ryanair.
"It's not like he's pulled a plough around the fields at home but he's not doing cartwheels like he was last year and the Gold Cup is a very hard race.
"We thought about it, we talked about it a lot. If he was 100 per cent fit, the conditions are all coming his way, the ground is drying out, but at 90 per cent, you take the chance of ruining the horse.
"It's (Ryanair) his best chance of win. (The change in plan has come about) in the last 24 hours really and we finally decided this morning. As soon as I knew, I wanted people to know. I said it would be the Gold Cup or he would stay at home, but he didn't move much in the betting.
"If I've let punters down, I apologise, I wasn't trying to. The logic was that if he was good enough to work for the Ryanair, he would run in the Gold Cup. It just turns out a 90 percent Vautour has a better chance of winning the Ryanair than the Gold Cup.
"Hopefully there's not too much damage done and his price in the Ryanair certainly didn't move after I said that. We're trying to solve in the best interests of the horse."
The Ricci-Mullins combination is still set to be represented in the Gold Cup by Djakadam, who finished second to Coneygree last year but suffered a fall at the track in his trial event back in January.
Mullins admitted the Ryanair Chase had "probably" been in "the back of his mind all along" for Vautour, but pointed to Djakadam's current well-being as another consideration for the change in plan.
He said: "Ruby could only ride one of them and I was keen for Ruby to ride him. We were all keen to go for the Gold Cup but the last day we were here, Djakadam got a bad cut and he had some stitches in his chest and we didn't know that he'd make the Gold Cup.
"Only in the last week have we got enough work into him (Djakadam) and we were happy, and then I started to think differently. But I never said anything to Rich and yesterday I started talking about it, and then this morning we said that was the way we were going to go."
Ricci is executive chairman of bookmakers BetBright, who are paying out on Vautour as the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Of the Vautour decision, Walsh told Racing UK: "It suits me. I didn't try to dissuade him."
Another surprise declaration is Road To Riches, owned by Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary under his Gigginstown House Stud banner.
Road To Riches was third in the Gold Cup last year and Noel Meade was keen to have another crack at the blue riband, but the owners have a strong hand with the likes of Don Cossack and Don Poli in Friday's showpiece.
"After the final discussions that was the decision that was made. The owners have a lot of horses to run. They have a few in the Gold Cup and decided to go for this race with him," said Meade.
Gigginstown have a second string to their bow in Valseur Lido after 15 horses were left at the 48-hour final declaration stage. Other Irish-trained runners are Enda Bolger's Gilgamboa and Smashing from Henry de Bromhead's stable.
The David Pipe-trained Dynaste, who triumphed two years ago, bids to regain his crown, while Alan King, successful 12 months ago, is represented by course specialist Annacotty.
Nicky Henderson is double-handed with Captain Conan and Josses Hill as is Philip Hobbs, who saddles Champagne West and Village Vic.
A highly-competitive field is completed by Dan Skelton's Al Ferof, Malcolm Jefferson's Oscar Rock, Jonjo O'Neill's Taquin Du Seuil and Vibrato Valtat, trained by Paul Nicholls.