Could it have been fuelled by jockey Ruby Walsh’s assertion, at a Cheltenham Preview night at the Keadeen Hotel last week, that he would spend the next fortnight pleading with Willie Mullins and owner Rich Ricci to run the horse in the shorter race?
“I think the Ryanair Chase is probably the weakest race of the Festival, and I would dearly love Vautour to run because I wouldn’t have to choose between him and Djakadam in the Gold Cup,” Walsh told host Oli Bell.
“I’d say there’s no chance he’ll run in it, but I’ll keep dreaming. I can’t see it happening, but I’m going to keep at it. I heard Road To Riches is going to run in this race, but I think he’s too slow, and I really fancy Smashing.”
Asked by host Bell what would be the greatest influence in choosing between Djakadam and Vautour should both head to the Gold Cup, Walsh replied: “They will work in the Curragh seven days before the Gold Cup and how they work that day will probably decide which I ride.”
For those who believe Vautour has star potential, it was a pragmatic but disappointing response.
If the seven-year-old is the sensation he promised to be with that scintillating display in last season’s JLT Novices’ Chase, there wouldn’t be a decision to be made, surely, and there wouldn’t be any talk of the Ryanair Chase.
But last season’s Festival victory was over two and a half miles, and the King George, in which he was caught on the line, is over the bare three miles. Reading between the lines, we may assume stamina is a far greater concern to connections than they would have us think.
After assessing that most of the horses entered in the Gold Cup had no chance, Walsh added: “Cue Card won’t stay, Djakadam has a great chance, and Don Cossack is definitely the class horse but the big worry with him would be his record at Cheltenham and his record in big-field races. He’s definitely a much easier ride in a smaller field than in a big field.
“And the same would apply to Don Poli, who seems to lack a gear. He would be a hard ride in a big field. A horse who races behind the bridle, like him, would need everything to go his way to get you in the right positions.”
Quizzed why he was so confident Cue Card wouldn’t stay and yet Vautour, who succumbed to that rival’s late rally at Kempton, would, Walsh explained: “You only have one King George to judge Vautour on but if you analyse the data from all of Cue Card’s King Georges, there’s enough to conclude he won’t stay.
“Also, Willie will have Vautour a lot better than he had him in the King George. I think he will stay – I’ve had no doubt about his stamina since day one.”
Walsh’s good friend and fellow panellist at the preview night, Tony McCoy, was having none of it.
Comparing Vautour to Gordon Richards’ One Man, who, after two failed bids in the Gold Cup, landed the Champion Chase on the penultimate start of his seven-year career, he insisted: “He has no chance of staying. He’s One Man – that’s what he is.
“He’ll probably win the next two or three King Georges and he’ll win a Champion Chase. The last two and a half furlongs of the Gold Cup are a gruel and no matter how much better he is (than his rivals) he won’t stay.
“Only three horses - Don Cossack, Djakadam and Don Poli – are good enough stayers to win the Gold Cup,” McCoy asserted, before firing a warning shot at Walsh: “Don’t pick the wrong one, that’s all I’m saying.”
Moving to the Champion Hurdle, Walsh had some interesting views on Annie Power’s possible participation.
“No decision has been made but when you look at the race, you think ‘could Annie Power beat those horses?’ To me, the obvious answer is ‘yes’,” he said.
“Then you start thinking ‘is she quick enough?’
“She’s definitely as quick as Rock On Ruby, she probably as quick as Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace. No, she’s not as good as Faugheen, and she’s not as good as Hurricane Fly, but is she good enough to win this race?
“Yes, she probably is.
“I always thought of her as the sub if anything went wrong with Faugheen, Arctic Fire and those horses. She’s the only one we have good enough that you could sub in.”
But this is a much stronger race than her alternative engagement, in the Mares’ Hurdle, and Walsh is acutely aware of that.
Responding to the question of why a definite decision has not yet been made, he added: “You’d be leaving a near-certainty in the Mares’ Hurdle. Cheltenham is about winning, it’s not about taking part.”