Road to Cheltenham: Ryanair Chase
An archive of Lydia Hislop's Ryanair Chase entries from her 2016-17 'Road to Cheltenham' series.
February 9 2017
Nothing much to update in this section aside from acknowledging Tizzard's curveball with Fox Norton and that Traffic Fluide is definitely in the land of the living. But this Sunday's Irish Gold Cup could easily propel some of this race's key players Gold Cup-wards.
Zabana, Empire Of Dirt and Sizing John are the potential defectors, but this would look like the right race for the first and last-named, however. That said, as Paul Jones has pointed out in this week's Cheltenham Festival element of pauljoneshorseracing.com, Sizing John's owners Alan and Ann Potts tried to envisage Sizing Europe as a Gold Cup horse. Hence why this horse had to be a NRNB selection for this column's purposes.
February 2 2017
Un De Sceaux was almost immaculate when winning the rescheduled Grade One Clarence House at Cheltenham last Saturday. He settled instantly, as he does these days, and clearly enjoyed the strong pace in soft conditions. The worst you can level at him is clipping the second last and landing awkwardly. It was probably a career best.
Rider Ruby Walsh spoke afterwards of having "loads of horse left" and rightly reminded us of Un De Sceaux's hardy professionalism in having made two trips to Britain within eight days after Ascot, the race's original host track, was abandoned.
Ever since the emergence of Douvan and Un De Sceaux's defeat by Sprinter Sacre in last year's Queen Mum, the Ryanair has been increasingly deemed his Festival target. Walsh hinted as much after he won the Tingle Creek, as discussed here at the time, when his odds were 9/1. He's now mostly 3/1.
"On good ground in the Champion Chase last year he looked a little slow," said Patrick Mullins, son and assistant to Willie, in a Racing Post podcast. "He looks to be a bit out of his comfort zone on good ground and his jumping seems to suffer, so stepping up to the Ryanair seems to be the logical option."
Un De Sceaux has never raced beyond 2m2f in Britain or Ireland but did win a French Grade Two hurdle over an extended 2m5f by eight lengths in May. A couple of years ago, I would have doubted whether he could translate that to figure in a Ryanair but now he's so much more tractable I'm inclined to agree with Team Mullins that stamina is not an issue.
"I think he would stay [three miles] if we could get him to settled better - and he is settling better," Mullins asserted. "I think he's the most exciting horse in racing to watch. He wears his heart on his sleeve."
It was super to see 2015 Ryanair hero Uxizandre back on a racecourse here and, briefly, he even looked dangerous in the straight but that was a function of a strong pace and an advantageously patient ride from Barry Geraghty. In short, he was flattered to get so close to the winner.
Nonetheless this was a hugely-encouraging comeback from an absence of nearing two years. Understandably Uxizandre was keen and threw himself at some of the early fences until Geraghty took him out of the party and told him to calm down. When he was allowed back in the room, he made up cheap lengths to pass Top Gamble for second.
Although King has also entered Uxizandre in the Queen Mum, he has since said that it's "more likely" he'll contest the Ryanair. Provided he doesn't recoil from this excellent comeback effort - and his jockey did everything he could to make sure he didn't overdo it - he will be a real threat to Un De Sceaux on good ground. Certainly, a bigger threat than being more than twice that rival's odds would suggest.
January 25 2017
Having dealt with the Kinloch Brae in last week's edition of the Road, there is little to report here except that Sizing John has reached a price that makes runner-up Sub Lieutenant too long at 16/1.
The extra accent on stamina caused by omitting the last fence definitely helped the winner reel in his good-jumping rival, although I'd still argue Sizing John has the greater potential at this trip.
Meanwhile, the rescheduled Clarence House has provided an opportunity for trainer Alan King to get 2015 Ryanair hero Uxizandre back in action for the first time since that memorable success.
January 19 2017
There was mostly bad news in this division when it emerged that Valseur Lido's season is likely to be over and Killultagh Vic's might not begin.
The former sadly sustained a condylar fracture of a cannonbone during routine work at trainer Henry de Bromhead's yard last Friday and was immediately taken to Fethard Equine Hospital for treatment.
"I'm hopeful a couple of screws will sort it out," Gigginstown House Stud's Eddie O'Leary commented soon after the incident. "Hopefully it won't be career ending but we won't make any further comment until we see how he comes through the operation."
Valseur Lido had been entered along with 47 others for the Ryanair, as well as for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, and a run in next month's Irish Gold Cup would have clarified his likely target. Far less importantly, he becomes the first of our ante-post bets to bite the dust.
Killultagh Vic took that dubious honour last year and the radio silence on his condition since Patrick Mullins gave a downbeat report last November had seemed telling. He has not been seen since damaging himself when making a remarkable recovery from a last-fence sprawl to win at Leopardstown 12 months ago.
"The bad news is he will miss Cheltenham," Willie Mullins reported in his Racing Post column last Saturday. "It will just come a bit soon for him. The good news is he is back riding out and he might make one of the spring Festivals, perhaps Punchestown."
Meanwhile, that day on the track Vaniteux won Kempton's Listed Chase in convincing enough style, although he surely benefitted from Vibrato Valtat and Quite By Chance taking each other on from a long way out.
"Paul [Moloney, winning jockey] kept Vaniteux covered up all the way and he got the trip round here but I don't know if it tells us he would get it round Cheltenham," said trainer Nicky Henderson. "He really wants good ground and this is slow enough for him but it's better than it's going to be anywhere else at this time of year."
That, of course, is one of the key reasons we must fight to keep Kempton. As one of the few British racecourses not resembling a quagmire during winter, it provides a suitable stage for important graded races and plays a pivotal role in the conditioning of top-class horses for key spring targets.
Besides its rich heritage - the organic product of decades of history that can't be "created" anew, as Jockey Club Racecourses chief executive Simon Bazalgette seems to think - this is another fundamental reason why the King George belongs at Kempton and not at Sandown or even Ascot. The race will be damaged, probably irreparably, if swapped to venues that can usually offer only heavy ground at Christmas.
Even Bazalgette seemed to acknowledge this on ITV Racing's Opening Show last Saturday when, having asserted that "all the things we can do at Kempton we can do either just as well or better [elsewhere]", he felt obliged to add: "Or almost as well. The King George will be a different race at Sandown but it will be a great race."
Frankly, a Sandown King George would be more like a level-weights Welsh National - and we already have the original the following day at Chepstow. It shames JCR that they appear not to understand fully this essential worth of one of their own assets - even if they're capable of putting a price tag on it.
It was also slightly surreal to watch Bazalgette endorsing the removal of about 60% of JCR's fixtures from Britain's most populous area on a TV show his organisation will judge harshly if it fails to reach a new audience. If ITV must convert a tough crowd, why has JCR shoved it in the too-difficult tray all these years at Kempton? That looks a lot like hypocrisy.
Back to Vaniteux: I still couldn't trust him. Even if he probably is better suited by a sounder surface, he's no scrapper and I can't have him on my mind for the Ryanair - or indeed any Festival race. Vibrator Valtat, the only other horse to finish, was conceding 1lb to the winner but continues to operate a tad below his best and is currently finding it difficult to get any traction.
Frustrations with King's Odyssey continue for Evan Williams, who saw his second-season chaser finish a distant third to Three Musketeers at Market Rasen this week. He'd previously fallen when travelling well in the Caspian Caviar but had since suffered a puncture wound and missed "a couple of bits of work".
Williams said beforehand that "we're not worried if he doesn't win" but he was 25 lengths adrift and yet to demonstrate that he's capable of transitioning into level-weights graded company.
And finally - hot off the press after watching the Kinloch Brae at Thurles - I must advise you to back Sizing John for the Ryanair. This market was always going to get a shake-up whatever the result when he took on fellow entries Black Hercules, Sub Lieutenant and Smashing in the race Don Cossack used as a stepping-stone to the Gold Cup last year.
Sizing John had chased home Douvan seven times in his career to date so it was definitely time for a change and the fact he was entered in all three championship chases already indicated new trainer Jessica Harrington was thinking the same way.
Stepping up to around 2m4f was something I mooted for this horse last term when pondering the JLT market and he shaped as though it would suit when refusing to allow Douvan an entirely free pass at Leopardstown last month.
Admittedly, he had been below his best over that trip at Aintree last April but one attempt wasn't enough evidence and he's bred to stay further than two miles. Duly, he needed almost every inch of this Thursday's well-run Grade Two to get the better of Sub Lieutenant.
You're always going to get a feverish pace when Smashing is involved and he set off in his usual headlong manner but Sub Lieutenant moved up to press him on the run towards the usual third last. Sizing John had to be mildly nudged to stay on their heels and shaken up on the landing side but turning into the straight it looked as though Robbie Power felt in with a shout.
Sub Lieutenant by no means handed it to him, however, and it was only as they bypassed the final fence that Sizing John started to get on top. He's now 8/1 pretty much everywhere for the Ryanair and that's understandable for a horse proven at Cheltenham, on a sounder surface and that will be suited by a slightly stiffer test of stamina. Let's back him to win NRNB with bet365. Five of the seven rivals the same price or shorter than him in that market are likely non-runners.
Third-placed Black Hercules is running like a horse that's simply not firing. He was slow or slightly awkward at many fences and actually did well to work his way into contention after what turned out to be the second last. News of any pre-Festival tweaking or an uplift in his wellbeing would be interesting as he's not exactly running horribly.
January 11 2017
It was lovely to see Garde La Victoire back in the winner's enclosure at Sandown last Saturday for what on paper was probably a career-best performance in beating Bold Henry by two lengths from a mark of 154.
In his Betway blog, jockey Richard Johnson anticipated he might well have "another run in a handicap somewhere before stepping back into graded company". However, to my eye his jumping remains too vulnerable to cut it for this or any other Festival race.
Trainer Alan King has indicated 10-year-old Smad Place, last seen when seventh to Native River in the Hennessy, and the year-younger Uxizandre, unsighted since winning the 2015 Ryanair, will both be among the entries set to be revealed later this week.
In a Racing Post interview, owner Rich Ricci suggested Djakadam would be entered in the Ryanair and that option would be considered if it was quicker ground but he would be heading to the Gold Cup if it were soft. I cannot follow that anti-logic.
January 4 2017
In failing by three lengths to concede 9lbs to owner Carl Hinchy's unexposed Irish recruit Shantou Flyer, Village Vic delivered the metronomic front-running jumping performance we've come to expect from him at Cheltenham but was less in evidence in the Caspian Caviar last time out.
There was half a length back to, in third, the more patiently ridden Top Gamble, who conceded 1lb to the runner-up but thrives in testing ground. Although both placed horses are super-consistent stars of the jumps season, neither quite has the class even for a Ryanair - at least on recent evidence of the race.
Rebecca Curtis, who now trains the winner, deems him a future National horse but didn't dismiss the Ryanair as an option. When trained by Colin Bowe last season, Shantou Flyer won at Cheltenham in October but hit the deck relatively late on in the NH Chase.
At Tramore that same day, Village Vic's clumsy former stable companion Champagne West recorded his best effort since finishing second to that horse in the 2015 Caspian Caviar. He still threatened to undermine his own efforts with a dodgy jump at the second last but ultimately beat a fair Listed field by 12 lengths.
That was his second start for Henry de Bromhead, who was worried beforehand about the tight track and felt afterwards that Champagne West had appreciated the soft ground. It was good to see the winner bag this confidence-booster but it did not convince for loftier targets.
Roi Des Francs ran respectably at a track that surely didn't suit but Clarcam continues below his best. Alechi Inois would have hated the ground.
January 1, 2017
As a result of his King George slamming, bookmakers introduced Cue Card as the new Ryanair favourite. I realise they'd clearly gained access to the doors of perception when making a once-raced novice favourite for the Gold Cup in November but, really, this is just wacky.
I get the concept that Tizzard has two upwardly mobile contenders for the Gold Cup in Thistlecrack and Native River, so why wouldn't he re-route their veteran stable companion to this event? After all, he was extremely impressive when winning it in 2013.
However, the clues are there in the small print: age and four years ago. Cue Card ran poorly in the King George and at least two of the potential reasons for that - the absence of soft ground and vulnerability to younger legs - will surely apply at the Festival in March, whatever the race.
He's clearly got a chance if returning to his Betfair Chase glory but remember he was also well below his best - perhaps with excuses - on his previous two starts. That by mentioning the Ryanair Tizzard seems to have accepted so swiftly his younger chasers' supremacy is also hardly a ringing endorsement for the project. Cue Card surely shouldn't be favourite.
That mantle rightfully belongs at this admittedly early stage for such a race to either Un De Sceaux - who probably runs here (if at all at the Festival) unless the ground is heavy or something happens to prevent stablemate Douvan from running in the Champion Chase - or Valseur Lido.
The latter found only scintillating Vautour too good in last season's Ryanair, albeit he was ridden as the follow-up blow in a Gigginstown combination punch on the winner with Road To Riches enduring a battering on the ropes first.
Valseur Lido seems an improved horse since and travelled into the Lexus nicely before failing to stay. That was also the analysis of Gigginstown's Michael O'Leary who mentioned the Ryanair as his revised Festival target and yet Sky Bet and Paddy Power still offer 12/1. Let's take that, each-way. The 11s and 10s around elsewhere are also perfectly acceptable.
Behind him in the Lexus, More Of That and stable companion Taquin Du Seuil ran respectable enough races - the former responding to first-time cheekpieces to deliver his best effort of the season - but they both fall a tad short of the requisite class.
The same seems to apply to Zabana who had a wide trip but was not facing unsuitable ground and had beaten Outlander at Punchestown in April. The aforementioned Road To Riches seems to be in the wilderness currently.
Compared with these candidates, the more together Josses Hill looks a far more credible player in this division - even if he has something to find on even the King George version of Cue Card.
Last year's JLT hero Black Hercules finished last behind Douvan over 2m1f at Leopardstown last Tuesday after being almost the first of the quintet to come under pressure. But he shaped more encouragingly over an inadequate trip than he had over a more suitable one behind Djakadam last time.
In news from the sidelines, the schedule for getting Traffic Fluide back in action for the Game Spirit, en route to the Ryanair, remains tight according to trainer Moore. The horse resumes "normal exercise" on Monday. "We will just need to see how he gets on in the coming weeks as plans can always change," Moore observed.
December 21, 2016
Given L'Ami Serge was so much in the habit of jumping left last season that he even clipped the inside wing of the first fence in the JLT, right-handed Exeter was never likely to suit him.
He duly jumped left throughout - conceding ground, impetus and energy - so even though he faced a novice in Le Prezien and an inferior clutz in Oscar Sunset, he didn't shape at all badly in finishing second to the former, beaten just under three lengths, on his seasonal debut.
Trainer Nicky Henderson was beforehand of the view that the 2m4f trip was a doubt, saying: "He's always looked as if he might get two-and-a-half [miles] and then you go there and he suggests he's not getting it."
You can plausibly argue L'Ami Serge's placed efforts over 2m4f at the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals are in fact his best form but he did also flatten out in those races, perhaps partly as a result of jumping or lugging left so much - at left-handed tracks! My suspicion is that until or unless this problem is resolved, L'Ami Serge won't cut it in open graded company.
Camping Ground hadn't jumped well behind Josses Hill in the Peterborough Chase but was more fluent in Newbury's graduation chase last Wednesday until clipping the top of the cross fence and coming down. He was travelling fine at the time but it was too far out to say whether he'd have bridged the gap to front-running winner Three Faces West, who's improved for cheekpieces. It's starting to look as though Camping Ground won't realise the Grade One ambitions connections have held for him, either.
December 15, 2016
If we're marking him stringently, Village Vic didn't jump quite as fluently as he has done in the past at Cheltenham but it was nonetheless a super effort to carry top-weight into a rallying third place in last Saturday's Caspian Caviar Gold Cup.
On paper it was surely similar to his improved BetVictor Gold Cup second last time out and absolutely merits him consideration for the Ryanair. However, he was swept aside in an admittedly deep edition of that race last term and the feeling persists that he still won't quite cut it at that class.
Grade One winner Kylemore Lough mostly displayed his beautiful jumping technique but stumbled badly three out, stuttered when leading at the last, and got swallowed up. The Grand National fences continue to call his name.
Kings Odyssey was travelling comfortably on the heels of the leaders when unfortunately coming down at the 12th. It was shaping up to be a marked improvement on his Haydock debut - with which, it should be noted, trainer Evan Williams was entirely satisfied - so that was a great shame.
There are more races to be won with him, clearly. He is not yet proven on a sound surface, however.
December 7, 2016
Josses Hill initially seemed to shake off the snooker-table stiffness in his back and legs after ungainly jumps at the first three obstacles but there were still one or two cumbersome leaps even after he'd got into a rhythm.
He was permitted to measure his fences unhassled for much of the Grade Two Peterborough Chase last Sunday so there were also some jumps of marked fluency in his round, particularly when drawing away from his field over the final two obstacles.
It all added up to him being much the best of a good, if not outstanding, edition of the Huntingdon showpiece and a personal best - in terms of palpable achievement and dry number-crunching. He's clearly in very good heart at the moment.
Nicky Henderson certainly believes he's "on the up again now" and spoke of stepping back up in trip. He mentioned the Grade One Betfair Ascot Chase in February - although owner Alan Spence is also intent on the Ryanair - but "good ground is crucial and going right-handed probably helped". Josses Hill's record certainly bears Henderson out on the former, if not yet the latter, assertion.
Talking of the shadow that falls between the idea and the reality, the motion and the act, rider Lizzie Kelly reportedly dismissed as "rubbish" the notion Peterborough runner-up Tea For Two needs to go right-handed.
However, mum and assistant trainer Jane Williams is on record after her daughter's history-making Grade One success in the 2015 Feltham that the horse "wants a right-handed flat track".
Perhaps the family's thinking has altered but the data says Tea For Two has been raced only sparingly left-handed - six of his 17 starts - and to date his best form on those tracks is not within at least 20lbs of his right-handed peak. Small sample but dem's da facts.
Here, Tea For Two's own jumping lacked focus early on but he stayed on well to chase the winner in clear second place and looks ready to step back up in trip. He holds a King George entry but needs to find further improvement to make an impact there.
Connections might consider switching 2014 World Hurdle hero More Of That back to the smaller obstacles were JP McManus not already so long-suited in that department. It might be worth a go anyway as although he finished third in the 2016 RSA, despite breaking a blood vessel, it still was not up to the level of his best hurdling form.
Furthermore, jumping fences currently seems something of an effort for him even if he ideally wants further. This third place was laboured. After a series of setbacks and absences, it's hard to know what ability this once-brilliant horse retains. All his live entries are for chases.
Back in fourth Dodging Bullets ran better than at Ascot but still instantly went from pressing to beaten at the second last. Last-placed Volnay De Thaix made many mistakes and was never able to get involved.
The Ryanair is a viable target for Ar Mad given connections probably wouldn't seek to change the front-running tactics that so clearly suit him - and were employed victoriously (albeit in a measured way) by Uxizandre in 2015. The Moores do have Traffic Fluide, currently sidelined, in mind for this race, however.
And, to repeat, there could be Un De Sceaux…
November 30, 2016
It was a bold first attempt at nigh on three miles from Bristol De Mai in the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle last Saturday and certainly a livelier effort than when See You At Midnight galloped all over him on his seasonal debut.
However, his stamina did seem to ebb away because, having hitherto out-jumped his rivals, he was low at all four fences in the straight and duly gathered in by Otago Trial, a classy specialist in testing conditions who was also in receipt of 8lbs.
Yet even allowing for a beneficial drop in trip, last year's JLT third needs to find improvement to get involved in the Ryanair. On the other hand, the winner is unexposed at three miles.
Third-placed Definitly Red recorded another consistent effort in third, having not quite clicked with his jumping on this occasion. Bishops Road, whose slow early leaps put him on the back foot from the outset, shaped with some promise for marathon targets.
When Ttebob is involved, you know how things will roll: he careers off in front, usually in a sweaty mess and putting his rivals' jumping to the sword before probably capitulating sometime after the two-mile mark and before the finish - especially in the grade he faced at Gowran last Saturday.
From what we could discern in the thick fog that obscured much of the race for TV viewers, he weakened quickly after being headed at the fourth last. But he had got Tennis Cap beaten at an early stage and exposed some flaws in the jumping of both Zabana, the eventual winner, and (it will come as no shock) Champagne West on his Irish Rules debut.
That pair moved on, locked in a disputed lead together, until Zabana broke Champagne West at the very next fence when the latter blundered through it. Well-backed Kitten Rock was bearing down on them at the time but had got too far adrift in the early stages and, compounded by an awkward landing at the last, never quite reached the winner.
Andy Lynch said afterwards of Zabana: "I thought they went too fast early on. He's not 100 per cent fit and that was in the back of my mind - that he might not get home - but he did. There's talk of him going for the Lexus but we don't know yet."
His best previous chase and hurdle form (achieved in successive years at the Punchestown Festival) came at that trip and he remains unexposed over it. He could yet develop into a Gold Cup contender.
Kitten Rock suffered a truncated season as a novice chaser, running only twice, and is short on experience for a test such as this. This was surely his best performance yet over fences. He could develop into a Ryanair candidate.
Champagne West is a talented horse but his jumping imploded for Philip Hobbs last term, so owner Roger Brookhouse has clearly opted to give him a change of scenery at the Henry de Bromhead yard. At least he completed for the first time in four starts, but he still betrayed fallibility under fire. Ttebob was ultimately pulled up on his first run since April.
Perhaps Smad Place will have a stab at the Ryanair? A bold-jumping positive ride could see him run well and he certainly defended his Hennessy title with credit, finishing seventh under top-weight. You can't help but feel his moments - there were far more than one for this tremendous grey - have passed, however.
Similar thoughts apply to Champagne Fever even though he rolled back the years to narrowly fend off another golden oldie Lord Windermere in the 2m6f Listed Chase at Thurles last Thursday. Once you got over the novelty of actually being able to see an important Irish race, you were overcome by the warm fuzzy glow of two veterans serving it up to younger pretenders.
The winner has an outstanding Cheltenham record - winner of the 2012 Bumper, 2013 Supreme and somehow runner-up to Western Warhorse (who?) in the 2014 Arkle. He missed the 2015 Festival when bitten by a stablemate in the racecourse stables and then all of last season with a setback. His victim on Thursday was the 2013 RSA and 2014 Gold Cup hero, who hadn't been seen since pulling up in the 2015 Grand National.
The two grizzled warriors jumped better than their rivals: Champagne Fever was impeccable bar for the fifth last (when the leader jumped across him) and just had a shade more toe than Lord Windermere, who fluffed three out when outpaced but only just failed to peg back the winner on rallying to the line.
By contrast, Roi Des Francs blundered his chance away at the second last and, although he knuckled down, he weakened as if the run was needed approaching the final fence. Wounded Warrior gave the fourth last a slow-motion wallop and may also have needed the run, although he was sent off favourite. He definitely wants more of a trip.
It was hard to know where to address these horses, given their differing distance requirements. Champagne Fever is shortest priced for the Ryanair but Mullins spoke afterwards of dropping back to two miles - not to mention more realistic Grade Two or Three targets. The second and fourth are Gold Cup outsiders.
But the Thurles race ended up here because Roi Des Francs might be interesting for the Ryanair, given he was disputing the lead three out in last term's RSA before fading and making a tired mistake at the last.
November 23, 2016
Royal Regatta is a hard horse to beat at Ascot, not least because of his neat trick of running down his fences to his left and then adjusting right in tune with the contours of the track on take-off. Had any horse been capable of matching strides with him last Saturday, that habit means they would have been carried out to their left at each fence and likely have lost ground.
As it happened, he was left alone on the lead in the feature Grade Two chase there last Saturday, enabling him to measure his fences in his own inimitable style. He clocked a decent time, too, but is unlikely to reproduce this form away from his confirmed favourite track and the race fell apart in his wake.
The exception to that was impeccable-jumping Kylemore Lough, who shaped as though Aintree would ultimately call his name. This was a great start to the season from last season's Fairyhouse Grade One novice chase winner, who only just failed to reel in the winner.
It was a respectable performance from Eduard on only his second start in almost two years and his first since finishing fourth in the 2015 Ryanair. He hit the sixth fence and barely missed one thereafter, but wasn't ultimately beaten that far on his seasonal debut.
But the rest disappointed in one way or another. God's Own hung right and weakened between the final two obstacles, despite having had the benefit of a prep run, so perhaps found too great an accent on stamina. Vibrato Valtatjumped scruffily and was soon beaten. Stable companion and 2015 Champion Chase hero, Dodging Bullets, was never travelling and pulled up long before stamina became the issue at a track at which he has excelled.
It might be that Kings Odyssey, who returned from ten months off over an inadequate trip at Haydock the preceding day, is considered for the Ryanair, given there was talk of the JLT last term. He was progressive back then, but is yet to prove his best form is not tied to testing ground.
November 16, 2016
This remains the race whose shape is hardest to predict right up to the wire. There was a Gigginstown pincer movement last year when two credible Gold Cup contenders, Road To Riches and Valseur Lido, stepped up… only for Ricci and Mullins to perform an even later handbrake-turn with Vautour.
"Willie could change his mind at any time," Walsh smilingly admitted when talking about another horse in the Racing UK NH Preview. It's a warning worth heeding for this season when contemplating backing all horses, although perhaps particularly Mullins and Gigginstown types.
Both operations have a lot of talented horses to slot into the right races, some of which might get sidelined, impress or disappoint en route. They therefore reserve the right to decide at the last minute, no matter what might have been said by whomever beforehand.
That's their prerogative and - albeit more realistic but prompt communication of mutable plans would be preferable for the effective promotion of this sport - the best rule for ante-post punters is to ensure the specific race conditions are right for their specific selection. That might well be obvious but I wish I'd followed my instinct with Yorkhill last year rather than listening to the advance plan. So, that's you and me told.
Although Taquin Du Seuil's narrow defeat of Village Vic produced a thrilling finish to the BetVictor Gold Cup Chase last Saturday - it might even have been a marginal career best from the winner - their overall profile tells us they fall short at this grade, even if last year's edition of the Ryanair (in which they were sixth and ninth respectively) was particularly fiery.
Over in Ireland, Ballycasey has rewired his mojo, having put up two of the better performances in his career on his last two starts: winning at Gowran in October and finishing third over an inadequate two miles at Navan last time.
Mullins says he's "got his confidence back" - in fact, it was his jumping that kept him in it last time and he would have been closer had he not been forced to switch approaching the last fence. A sounder surface would have suited more, too.
Of Ricci's Ryanair possibles, however, Vroum Vroum Mag interests me most at this nascent stage. She won last year's OLBG Mares' Hurdle with her head in her chest but I have always thought her greatest asset is her chasing ability. The possibility of sticking to fences hovered over much of her early campaign last season, but Ricci declared her his primary King George hope when discussing that race on At The Races earlier this month. Buyer beware: she, too, also has hurdle engagements.
Last month God's Own made a creditable return when second to Third Intention in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree. He lowered the colours of Vautour, no less, when running on his preferred right-handed track at Punchestown but his immediate entries - including the Betfair Chase and King George - hint that the Ryanair might be his Cheltenham target this season.
Other early season performances to note, potentially for this division, include Josses Hill's unpicking of the poor-jumping Camping Ground, who was all the talk for various races last season, in a match at Kempton last week. There was little resemblance to a snooker table from the winner; part of me is a bit sad about that (not really).
Also, Garde La Victoire may be stepping up in trip after running right up to his best in second to Sir Valentino in the Haldon Gold Cup, but his jumping still fails to convince.
Finally, some pertinent information and an opinion about Killultagh Vic. Patrick Mullins texted Chapman in response to a viewer's question about the horse while the latter was broadcasting on At The Races. That text reportedly said the 2015 Martin Pipe Hurdle winner wouldn't reappear until "late in the season at best". Hardly an encouraging missive.
You will recall that horse somehow managed to recover from a total final-fence sprawl to win at Leopardstown in January last time we saw him but, not unsurprisingly, injured himself in the process.
Although he'd already been advised in this column for last year's JLT prior to that run, even without such information I would have been wary of this horse this time around given his ante-post prices for various races anticipate both a perfect recovery and necessary improvement. I'm a huge fan, though, so I hope my caution is unfounded.