Vautour's impressive six-length victory in the Ryanair Chase over his stable-mate at Willie Mullins' yard, Valseur Lido, vindicated Mullins' decision to run him in the two and half mile race rather than the longer Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, his original target.
Mullins said: "He hasn't been exactly delighting me in his work, and it's amazing to see him making a performance like that. I think the drying ground has been a huge help to him, and maybe he's a horse who was just fed up of all that winter ground.
"He had a very hard race in Kempton [when he was second in the King George VI Chase] and it took him ages and ages to get over it. We've been trying everything with him for the past three weeks, all sorts of things, and they've obviously worked."
Vautour, who started at even money, was ridden by Ruby Walsh, for whom it was a 51st Festival victory and a sixth of the meeting.
When asked what horse Vautour was working with that made him look unimpressive, Mullins replied: "I must find out! David Casey would tell you. It could have been Limini... I think probably Djakadam."
He continued: "We hit the cross-bar so many times yesterday. Graham Wylie could have had a great day yesterday - he was so close in so many races, we got him a winner and then another winner [Black Hercules] again today. I said to Ruby as he went out, '51, please!' We're just enjoying it like everyone else."
Mullins was welcoming his sixth Festival winner this year and his 47th in all.
RUBY - 'I'D HAVE LEFT VAUTOUR AT HOME
After another stunning performance by Vautour, who landed his third successive Festival win by taking the Ryanair Chase, jockey Ruby Walsh admitted he would have left the horse at home.
Vautour, a leading fancy for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, was taken out of that race because trainer Willie Mullins felt the horse was just below his best, and so opted for what he perceived was the easier task. There was a backlash in the media because owner Rich Ricci had stated recently the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup would be his horse's target. Today Ricci apologised once more, and joked that he had been called 'Switch Ricci'.
Vautour had not run since finishing second in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, and Walsh said: "This morning, when I rode him for the first time since the King George, he felt alive - that's the wrong way to describe it, but there was power there, there was hunger in him. If I was training him, and thank God I'm not, he wouldn't have been here he would have been at home in Ireland.
"That's why Willie Mullins is so good - he shuffled the pack, and said 'put him in the Ryanair and see what happens'. It was a brave decision, but the horse came alive on the day. He ran a blinder in the King George, but his work was very lethargic - when David Casey rode him on Saturday he said his work was somewhere near right. He worked half all right with a cross nose band on him. I wouldn't say he worked well.
"When we came down the hill today into the straight for the first time he came alive and then I was happy. I didn't want to press on too early because I was aware of Road To Riches' stamina, and I was thinking if my fellow starts to pull up he'll be coming back at me. I also knew Valseur Lido would be a strong stayer, but we rounded the final bend and my horse opened up like last year. Incredible. He was tight at the last two but he was deadly at them. He went to the line with his ears pricked.
"He jumped as straight as a die, even though he had chances to jump left. He jumped left at Kempton and Ascot [earlier this season] but maybe something has come right internally - I don't know. As I said, if I was training him he would have been in Closutton [Mullins' stables], not here.
"I've always felt this horse is very special and he was magic today - hopefully we can keep him right.
MEADE HAPPY WITH RICHES
Trainer Noel Meade was happy enough with the performance of Road To Riches, who was just caught near the line by runner-up Valseur Lido to finish third in the Ryanair Chase this afternoon.
The 7/1 chance, who had finished third in last year's Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, tried to take on Vautour as the field turned for home but couldn't match the winner's acceleration heading to the second last and was eventually beaten half a length by Valseur Lido at the line, with the pair six lengths behind the even money favourite. Both horses are owned by Gigginstown House Stud
Meade was pleased with Road To Riches following the race.
"I suppose taking on Vautour turning for home has run us into the ground a little bit," said the trainer.
"The winner is a very good horse - we thought that last year. If Vautour wasn't in it, then Michael (O'Leary, whose Gigginstown House Studown Road To Riches) would have been right - this was the race for him. The change of plan for Vautour was a bit of a bummer for us!
"I think Road To Riches ran a good race - I'm proud of him. He looked to have second place but didn't quite get home in the last few strides. He'd been very well at home anyway. Where he goes next, I don't know. He'll be entered in Liverpool I suppose and Punchestown. He certainly didn't have a hard a race here that he had in the Gold Cup last year. He was very tired after that but not nearly as bad today."
Jockey Bryan Cooper was also happy with the horse.
"He ran a cracker," said Cooper.
"The ground was a big help for him but he was just beaten by a better horse. I had to go with Vautour turning for home but if I'd have had a bit of company, I probably would have finished second. I was on my own all the way up the straight.
"Noel's done a great job of getting him back from The Festival last year - he was tired after the Gold Cup and had a hard race. He ran well though."
SKELTONS DELIGHTED WITH AL FEROF
Popular grey Al Ferof ran a cracking race for Dan and Harry Skelton to finish a seven and three-quarter length fourth in the Grade One Ryanair Chase. Having tracked the pace early, the 11-year-old battled on gamely rounding the home turn and looked booked to finish second or third. However, a slight mistake at the last, saw the son of Dom Alco slightly lose momentum before keeping on well again up the hill to finish fourth.
The gelding, kept fresh for the race following his win last time out in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon, delighted connections.
Trainer Dan Skelton said: "He is so consistent. At his age to run another great like that is unbelievable. Obviously, Vautour is a different type of horse but a couple of the younger horses had a little bit more tactical speed than him nowadays.
"I could not be more proud of him. Perhaps if the ground had been a little bit softer he wouldn't have to go so hard during the race as he had to be flat-out early.
"He has run a magic race, he is a pleasure to train and deal with and he has come back in one piece. Everything went right and he has finished fourth. It has all gone really well."
Skelton suggested a possible tilt at the Melling Chase at Aintree or Sandown Park could be where Al Ferof lines up next. He remarked: "We will look at Aintree and possibly target the Melling Chase with him. Obviously, the three who finished in front of him are all Irish and we don't know what they are going to do and where they are going to go so we will look at Aintree and if that doesn't look ideal for him then he won't go.
"If it doesn't look like he is going to start first or second favourite for that race then we will leave it and instead look to go to Sandown on the last day of the season, ground permitting."
Jockey Harry Skelton commented: "He didn't get tired up the hill. He is 11-years-old and if I had got a better jump at the last I may have been third but there you go. He has run a great race and we are very lucky to have him."
2.50pm Ryanair Chase (Grade One)
1 Vautour (FR) Willie Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb Ruby Walsh Evens Fav 2 Valseur Lido (FR) Willie Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb David Mullins 11/1 3 Road To Riches (IRE) Noel Meade, Ireland 11st 10lb Bryan Cooper 7/1 4 Al Ferof (FR) Dan Skelton 11st 10lb Harry Skelton 5 Gilgamboa (IRE) Enda Bolger, Ireland 11st 10lb Barry Geraghty 6 Taquin du Seuil (FR) Jonjo O'Neill 11st 10lb Noel Fehily 7 Dynaste (FR) (Blinkers, Tongue Strap) David Pipe 11st 10lb Tom Scudamore 8 Josses Hill (IRE) (Sheepskin C/P) Nicky Henderson 11st 10lb Nico de Boinville 9 Village Vic (IRE) Philip Hobbs 11st 10lb Richard Johnson 10 Oscar Rock (IRE) (Blinkers) Malcolm Jefferson 11st 10lb Brian Hughes 11 Annacotty (IRE) (Sheepskin C/P) Alan King 11st 10lb Ian Popham 12 Captain Conan (FR) (Sheepskin C/P) Nicky Henderson 11st 10lb Andrew Tinkler PU Champagne West (IRE) Philip Hobbs 11st 10lb Tom O'Brien PU Smashing (FR) Henry de Bromhead, Ireland 11st 10lb Johnny Burke FELL 4 OUT Vibrato Valtat (FR) (Tongue Strap) Paul Nicholls 11st 10lb Sam Twiston-Davies
15 ran Distances: 6, ½, 1¼, 2¼, 3¼, 7, 2, 3, 15, 3¼, 6 Breeder: Haras de Saint Voir & Patrick Joubert Breeding: b/br g Network (GER) - Fatima III (FR) (Bayolidaan (FR)) Tote Win: £1.80 Places: £1.50; £3.10; £2.00 Exacta: £13.40
47th winner at The Festival for trainer Willie Mullins (6th of 2016)
51st winner at The Festival for jockey Ruby Walsh (6th of 2016) - most successful jockey of all-time at The Festival
Vautour becomes the first Irish-trained winner of the Ryanair Chase
Vautour wins at The Festival for the third consecutive year, following victories in the 2014 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle & 2015 JLT Novices' Chase
BetBright Cup: Great Britain 9, Ireland 8
The Ryanair Chase shares top billing with the World Hurdle on the Thursday of the Cheltenham Festival. The race was introduced to the meeting in 2005 and has had Grade 1 status since 2008.
The race is run over two miles and five furlongs. The idea of running an event at an intermediate distance between the Champion Chase and Gold Cup is to accomodate those horses without the pace for the shorter event or stamina for the Gold Cup test. Imperial Commander won this in 2009 and famously upset Kauto Star and Denman in the Gold Cup 12 months later.
We have been sharing tips and tracking news on the 2016 Ryanair Chase thread.
Ryanair Chase Stats 2006-2015
Albertas Run returned at 14/1 in 2010 has been the biggest-priced winner.
Tony McCoy is the most succesful jockey with 3 wins
The shortest-priced winner was Dynaste 3/1 in 2014.
Two Henderson trained favourites have been succesful in the 9 runnings - Fondmort (2006) and Riverside Theatre (2012).
Fate of the favourite: 1/3 4 5 2 2 4 1 2 1 3
8 of the 10 winners started 6/1 or shorter.
Winners Market Position: 2 1 3 2 2 8 2 2 1 8
Look for course form: 10 of the 11 winners (and 8 runners-up) had previously won at Cheltenham.
5 of the 11 winners either won or placed in the Paddy Power Gold Cup or December Gold Cup
Fondmort was landing his fourth race at Cheltenham when victorious in 2006.
The 2008 winner Our Vic was winning for the third time at the course and had a further four Cheltenham placed efforts to his name, including when runner-up in the 2007 Ryanair Chase.
The 2010 and 2011 winner Albertas Run is a three time festival winner having also landed the 2008 RSA Chase.
All 11 winners had a prep race between 25 and 76 days beforehand
The King George VI Chase is also a good guide. 5 of the last 7 winners ran in it.
Winners Age: The overall breakdown by age is : 6yo - 1 victory,7yo - 2 victory, 8yo - 3 victories, 9yo - 2 victories, 10yo - 3 victories.