Ricci has been widely reported to have said Vautour would run in the Gold Cup or not at all at Cheltenham at a preview evening earlier this month — a statement the owner does not deny.
However, Ricci said the thought process behind rerouting the Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old to the extended two-and-a-half-mile Ryanair Chase was made “in the best interests of the horse”.
He said: “The Gold Cup has been the plan all season — I know I’ve said that — and my feeling was that if he was working well enough to run in a Ryanair, why wouldn’t he be working well enough to run in a Gold Cup?
“It turns out he’s not been doing cartwheels, I’ve been very clear about that in the run up to the race, but we felt we’d take our chance in the Ryanair.
“It’s not like he’s pulled a plough around the fields at home but he’s not doing cartwheels like he was last year and the Gold Cup is a very hard race.
“We thought about it, we talked about it a lot. If he was 100% fit, the conditions are all coming his way, the ground is drying out, but at 90%, you take the chance of ruining the horse.
“It’s (Ryanair) his best chance of win. (The change in plan has come about) in the last 24 hours and we finally decided this morning. As soon as I knew, I wanted people to know. I said it would be the Gold Cup or he would stay at home, but he didn’t move much in the betting.
“If I’ve let punters down, I apologise, I wasn’t trying to. The logic was that if he was good enough to work for the Ryanair, he would run in the Gold Cup.
“It just turns out a 90% Vautour has a better chance of winning the Ryanair than the Gold Cup.
“Hopefully there’s not too much damage done and his price in the Ryanair certainly didn’t move after I said that.
“We’re trying to solve in the best interests of the horse.”
Ricci is also the chairman of the online bookmaker BetBright and the company later announced that it would settle all bets placed on Vautour for the Gold Cup as winners.
However, Ricci was unable to confirm how much would be paid out as a result.
“I don’t know how much or how little we paid out, I just said look, it’s the right thing to do, so let’s do it,” Ricci said.
The Ricci-Mullins combination are still set to be represented in the Gold Cup by Djakadam, who finished second to Coneygree last year but suffered a fall at the track in his trial event back in January.
Mullins admitted the Ryanair Chase had “probably” been in “the back of his mind all along” for Vautour, but pointed to Djakadam’s current well-being as another consideration for the change in plan.
He said: “Ruby could only ride one of them and I was keen for Ruby to ride him.
“We were all keen to go for the Gold Cup but the last day we were here Djakadam got a bad cut and he had some stitches in his chest and we didn’t know that he’d make the Gold Cup.”
Ruby Walsh admitted to the Irish Examiner his surprise at the late decision, commenting: “It is a surprise to me, as I hadn’t asked, but that’s what Willie has decided to do with him.
“I heard Willie saying on The Morning Line that he always had it in the back of his mind, and has now made the decision. That’s why he’s the trainer.
“Vautour was very good over the course and distance in last season’s JLT (Novice Chase) at this meeting, so hopefully he will put in a similar performance this year.”
Of Ricci’s concern the horse “hasn’t been pulling up trees in his work,” Walsh added: “You’d love him to be working the house down, but, to be fair, he worked a bit better the weekend, and the ground is drying, which will suit.”
Another surprise declaration for the Ryanair was Road To Riches, owned by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary under his Gigginstown House Stud banner.
Road To Riches was third in the Gold Cup last year and Meade was keen to have another crack at the blue riband, but the owners have a strong hand with the likes of Don Cossack and Don Poli in Friday’s showpiece.
“After the final discussions that was the decision that was made,” said Meade.
“The owners have a lot of horses to run. They have a few in the Gold Cup and decided to go for this race with him.”
Gigginstown have a second string to their bow in Valseur Lido after 15 horses were left at the 48-hour final declaration stage.
Other Irish-trained runners are Enda Bolger’s Gilgamboa and Smashing from Henry de Bromhead’s stable.