After making a winning return at Ascot in November, Vautour was caught only on the line by Cue Card on his first try over three miles in the King George and quickly returned to winning ways with an easy six-length victory in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham.
A rare blip (the first fall of his career) cost him in the Melling Chase at Aintree last time, but he got up fine and galloped off straight away so it ought not to have left too much of a mark and his latest Cheltenham Festival win (his third in as many years) again left the impression that he's potentially the best chaser in training.
A former Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner, Vautour wont’ have an issue with dropping back to two miles for the first time since 2014, either, and he's clearly the most likely winner.
Like Vautour, Special Tiara could have run at Sandown on Saturday —he won last year’s Celebration Chase and also finished a close second to Sire de Grugy in the Tingle Creek at the track in December — but his trainer Henry de Bromhead has elected for this race, which he won with Sizing Europe in 2014 and 2012.
Special Tiara hasn’t been at his best on his two previous goes at this course, but he simply went off too hard as a novice on the first occasion and there’s no doubt he comes into this race at the top of his game following his three-and-a-half lengths third behind Sprinter Sacre and Un de Sceaux in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham last month.
British raiders have won three of the last 10 renewals courtesy of the Paul Nicholls-trained pair Twist Magic (2008) and Master Minded (2009) and Sprinter Sacre (2013). Two horses represent Britain this time around, namely recent Melling Chase winner God’s Own and Simonsig.
God’s Own was fortunate to win that Aintree race as Vautour was tanking along in front when he came down at the ninth, but he still should be credited with improvement for comfortably beating Al Ferof who was rated 6 lb his superior going into the event, even if that rival wasn't quite at his very best. God’s Own won the Grade 1 novice over this course and distance at the 2014 Punchestown Festival and looks a solid each-way bet provided all eight run.
Simonsig was a top-class novice chaser in 2012/13 when he won two Grade 2s and the Arkle from three starts, but he’s been seen just once since, when second of five to the recently-retired Bobs Worth in minor hurdle at Aintree in early-November. He shaped as if retaining plenty of his ability that day (too keen at times) but it’s disconcerting that he missed the spring Festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree (won at both previously).
The field is completed by Flemenstar, who benefited from the fall of Un de Sceaux when winning the Grade 1 formerly known as the Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown in December and has been disappointing on his last two starts, and the big-priced trio Twinlight, Clarcam and Baily Green.
* * *
Tuesday’s Grade 1 Herald Champion Novice Hurdle over two miles has been won by Faugheen and Douvan in the last two years and Willie Mullins could have another winner worthy of the race’s title this year in Yorkhill.
A bumper winner at this meeting last year, Yorkhill’s unbeaten record includes wins at Cheltenham in the Neptune and at Aintree in the Mersey over longer distances on his last two starts, but he won the Tolworth at Sandown in testing ground over two miles before that and his trainer has nominated this race in preference to his other options at the meeting.
Yorkhill made hard work of landing the odds at Aintree, due in part to pulling hard, and the drop back in trip should help him settle better here.
Charbel (trained by Kim Bailey) looks the pick of the two British-trained runners after his beating of Brain Power (Nicky Henderson) at Musselburgh in February, since when Charbel has finished a creditable fifth in the Supreme at Cheltenham with Petit Mouchoir further behind. Ball d’Arc and Don’t Touch it complete the line-up.
* * *
The first novice chase at the meeting is the Grade 1 Growise Champion Novice Chase. The race is Ireland's equivalent of the RSA Chase at Cheltenham, but no horse has won both races since it was introduced in its present form in 2007.
Gigginstown House Stud and Willie Mullins have won this race with Valseur Lido (2015) and Sir des Champs (2012) in recent years, and are represented by Outlander this time around, while the owner also has recent Grand National winner Rule The World (Mouse Morris) and Sub Lieutenant (Sandra Hughes) in the field.
Rule The World is 3 lb clear of Outlander at the top of the ratings following his hero-ics at Aintree, though it’s perhaps worth pointing out that he naturally would have had a hard race there (17 days ago) and had previously gone 13 races over fences with-out a win, while it looks like Bryan Cooper is going to ride Outlander who he rode to finish second to Kylemore Lough in a 20-furlong Grade 1 at Fairyhouse last time. Outlander appeared to stay three miles on his only previous try, but he has done most of his racing over shorter.
Another owner with more than one runners is Chris Jones who has Noble Endeavor (Gordon Elliott) and Zabana (Andrew Lynch), and both remain with potential, especially the latter who was bumped and unseated at the start when only 8/1 for the JLT at Cheltenham last time.
Henryville, one of two runers from Britain (the other being Southfield Royale), is an intriguing contender given he’s yet to tackle graded company over fences and remains with potential, while Ballychorus’ 7 lb mares’ allowance brings her into the reckoning, though she’s not big and has unshipped her rider on three of her last four starts.
G3 - Lowland S
Listed - Ibhayi Stakes
G3 - Northern Trotting Breeders Stakes
G1 - Pascoes The Jewellers Northern Oaks
G3 - The Founders Cup (1700)