The Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old was one of the most impressive winners of last year’s Festival when powering clear in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and though he is two from three over fences, he has yet to rediscover that brilliance.
A serious mistake contributed to a hugely disappointing run over Christmas, but he got back on the winning trail at Leopardstown in January.
“I sound like I’m crabby because Vautour’s not getting enough respect, but I think Vautour is clearly our best chance for Thursday and Friday,” said Ricci.
“He certainly didn’t run very well over Christmas, I admit that, and he made a huge mistake. I was at Kempton on the day and just looking at him on the TV, he didn’t look right to me.
“He had his excuses, came back and won very well the next day. He worked really well last Saturday at Leopardstown. Some people were worried about his head carriage, but there were gale-force winds and some trainers didn’t even run their horses because of it.
“He’s a hell of a horse, you saw what he did last year and I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t win.”
Mullins also saddles Valseur Lido, winner of the Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse in November before being touched off by Apache Stronghold, who renews rivalry, at Leopardstown last month.
The Gigginstown-owned six-year-old was a long way behind Vautour at Cheltenham last year, however.
“I don’t think it (Supreme) was the race for him — it was too fast for him — but, anyhow, the experience of travelling over will stand to him this year,” Mullins said,
“The more he goes out in trip, the better he gets. He doesn’t need a lot of racing. He’s a lighter-framed horse than the likes of (RSA winner) Don Poli.
“You would say that’s what beat Valseur Lido the last day, the lack of a run or a lack of a gallop. Maybe just a better horse beat him, I don’t know. We’ll find out.
“It was a fantastic race to watch and he ran a fantastic race.”
Apache Stronghold’s trainer Noel Meade felt his charge was more of a stayer earlier in the season, but brought him back in trip after defeat at the hands of the Mullins-trained Don Poli over Christmas.
“I’ve always thought the world of him, so has Paul (Carberry). We’ve always thought he was a Grade One horse,” said Meade.
“Maybe he just didn’t stay three miles in the Topaz or maybe Don Poli is just a better horse.
“He looked to be travelling well but Paul said afterwards that he wasn’t going as well as he looked.
“Last time in the Flogas he wasn’t actually travelling like he can going down the back but he stayed on really strongly.
“He’s been good since and should run well. It is funny how racing goes as I thought he would be going for the RSA but his last two runs have suggested otherwise.
“He is a beautiful big horse who has great scope and balance. Hopefully he will bring his A-game to Cheltenham.”
The Tullow Tank was a dual Grade One-winning hurdler for Philip Fenton last season, but has not scaled those heights since being sent over fences by Sandra Hughes. The trainer was encouraged by his effort when fourth behind Apache Stronghold, however.
Hughes said: “He’s in very good form, we were delighted with his last run in Leopardstown.
“He showed a lot of his old enthusiasm and just got tired.
“We’d spent so much time trying to get his jumping sorted out so we didn’t work him in between and he might have just needed it.
“The main aim was just to get him jumping and that’s exactly what Adrian (Heskin) did — it did his confidence good.
“He’d lost his confidence on his second run as he got a bad bang going into the first and he didn’t forget it but hopefully his confidence is now up.”
Ptit Zig appears best of the British contingent.
Paul Nicholls’ six-year-old won his first four chasing starts before falling in last month’s Ascot Chase.
Nicholls said: “Ptit Zig has had a fantastic season, winning four novice chases on the trot. He was travelling beautifully at Ascot but he just got tight into a fence and paid the penalty. Hopefully he will learn from that.”
The champion trainer also runs Irish Saint. The Philip Hobbs-trained Colour Squadron, Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Splash of Ginge and Tango De Juilley from Venetia Williams’ yard complete the nine-strong field.