Vautour still must pass crucial stamina test Gold Cup represents

Evidence suggests he could be more a speed horse than a stayer says handicapper Noel O’Brien

 

Vautour may be favourite for next month’s Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup but he could have to produce a performance to rank with some of steeplechasing’s all-time greats if he is to win.

That’s the view of Ireland’s hugely respected National Hunt handicapper, Noel O’Brien, who regards the line-up of Irish trained horses currently dominating betting lists for Cheltenham’s festival highlight as the strongest team he can recall of Gold Cup horses sent from this country.

The top four in the betting for jump racing’s ‘blue-riband’ – Vautour, Don Cosssack, Djakadam and Don Poli – are all trained in Ireland, three of them by champion trainer Willie Mullins who has famously yet to land the Gold Cup.

Vautour was beaten by the main cross-channel hope, Cue Card, in the King George VI Chase at Kempton over Christmas but still tops ante-post betting lists at 9-2 despite that narrow loss on his first attempt at three miles.

Both Mullins and owner Rich Ricci, who also has last year’s runner-up Djakadam, insist the Gold Cup remains Vautour’s target. But Noel O’Brien says form evidence to date suggests the dual-festival winner is more a speed horse than a stayer, and, significantly, points out how the Gold Cup trip is over a quarter mile further again than the King George.

Three miles

“But the balance of all his form, particularly his outstanding win over two and a half at Cheltenham last year, when he looked a wonder horse, indicates to me he has more speed than stamina. We’re talking about a horse who also showed gears to win the two-mile novice hurdle at Cheltenham.

“So on balance, and all I can go on is the evidence up to now, he looks more a speed horse than a staying horse.

“That’s not to say he can’t win a Gold Cup but if he was to do so, be a Grade One performer at two miles, two and a half, three and then three and a quarter miles, that would really put him up there with some of the all-time greats. Because if staying is not your forte, I think the Gold Cup finds you out.”

The handicapper pointed to legendary names like Kauto Star, Best Mate and Desert Orchid as horses who overcame stamina concerns to land the Gold Cup but referenced others including the former Mullins star, Florida Pearl, who didn’t.

The hill

On official handicap figures Vautour (174) is currently 1lb behind the 175-rated Don Cossack, the top-rated chaser in either Britain or Ireland, with Djakadam on 168 and Don Poli on 167.

“It’s all about interpretation but Don Cossack is a relentless galloper and I thought he was going better before the second last in the King George (where Don Cossack fell) than at any other stage of the race. I would have expected him, given his style of running, to have stayed on so he is still top rated.

“Don Poli is a ‘does what it says on the tin’ horse: he continues to win, he’s got a great record at Cheltenham and he’s probably the dark horse of the race.

“Djakadam is, to me, the one with top class credentials, and they are apparent top class credentials. His run when second as a six year old was outstanding and he looks to be progressive. It was such a shame he fell at Cheltenham the last day. It was a long way out but he did look to be travelling superbly,” O’Brien said before indicating the current Gold Cup crop are an exceptional bunch.

“These things are cyclical and for many years we had barely a credible contender for the Gold Cup in Ireland.

“But with those four, and I’d throw in Valseur Lido too after his run on Sunday, this is as strong an Irish hand as I can remember,” he added.

Saturday’s Denman Chase at Newbury had been mooted as a possible Cheltenham warm-up for Vautour but his name isn’t among just four entries for a race which has been re-opened until Tuesday in an attempt to attract more runners. 

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