Ben Linfoot: Vautour’s last dance

Ben Linfoot reflects on the career of Vautour in this week's column, following the death of the three-time Cheltenham Festival winner.

Vautour, ears pricked, dances to victory in the 2015 JLT

It seemed only a matter of time until Vautour would have a bar or a race or a stand of the grand variety named after him. The equine sculptors probably had the bronze mould in place already, too, only you'd fancy the flashy bay gelding with a white blaze to have broken it.

Especially if it was set on a crisp spring day at Cheltenham in March.

For in a sport where Cheltenham Festival currency is king, Vautour was brashly acquiring a fortune.

While he lost a few pounds and euros elsewhere along the way, heartbreakingly so when Cue Card put in the performance of his lifetime to win the King George at Kempton, Vautour never missed a beat at Prestbury Park.

He danced his way to three spectacular Festival victories, more Darcey Bussell than Ed Balls, with the tempo of an allegro and the filthy footwork of a chacha-chá.

Ears pricked – always ears pricked – he went with such zest around Cheltenham's left-handed turns that you'd fancy him to run right through a fence if he failed to take off in time. But he always took off in time.

His first Festival appearance came in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle and he arrived already a Grade One winner thanks to a brisk demolition of The Tullow Tank in the Deloitte.

Sent off the 7/2 joint-favourite, he would never go off at odds as big as those again. A decisive six-length victory over Josses Hill followed with plenty more good horses beaten much further. Like Wicklow Brave, over nine lengths behind. Like Valseur Lido, over 11 lengths in arrears. Like Gilgamboa, beaten 16 lengths. All three were subsequent Grade One or Group One winners.

It wouldn't be the first time he'd make top-class horses look decidedly ordinary. Twelve months on, he did the same again, this time in the JLT Novices' Chase.

Vautour's preparation hadn't gone as smoothly ahead of this assignment, as the electric jumping that was to become his trademark at Cheltenham wasn't in evidence when he was defeated by Clarcam on just his second chasing start at Leopardstown over Christmas.

A vital confidence booster over a couple of extra furlongs at the same track followed and that paved the way for the step up in trip in the JLT. Not without a which-race-will-he-run-in-at-the-Festival saga, though, another theme in the Vautour story.

But you couldn't argue that Willie Mullins made the wrong decision following what was the most stunning performance seen by a novice at any Festival, in my experience anyway. And this in the same week that a novice won the Gold Cup.

It was simply breathtaking. Whenever I'm in the dentist's chair (a real one, not Gazza's) I think of the most spectacular things I have seen in my life to get me through the ordeal. Some of those thoughts are X-rated and these include the closing stages of Vautour's JLT.

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The way he cruised clear with Ruby Walsh barely tickling the handbrake. Those two magnificent leaps at the final two fences. The 15-length winning margin back to Grade One winners Apache Stronghold and poor Valseur Lido, again. Wow.

After that, it was no surprise to see him at the forefront of the betting for the Champion Chase, the Ryanair, the Gold Cup, the Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing. Here was a horse that could do wonderful things and, in the greatest arena the sport has, he looked unbeatable.

Let's be honest, he had a touch of the Kauto Star about him.

You fancied he could win over two miles, three-and-a-quarter miles and everything in between. While Kauto went and did such a thing in his golden 2006-7 season, when he won everything from the Tingle Creek to the Gold Cup in an unbeaten six-race stretch that included four Grade Ones, Vautour will now never get the chance.

But his only season out of novice company hinted at what he might've achieved.

He wasn't at his best when beating Ptit Zig on a rusty reappearance at Ascot, but that outing fine-tuned him ahead of the King George where he was, absolutely, on point.

It was a King George for the ages, with two-time winner Silviniaco Conti going for a hat-trick and five-time Grade One winner Don Cossack earning favouritism. Dozen-length Hennessy winner Smad Place was in there, too, as was Al Ferof, a Grade One winner himself and third in two previous King Georges.

Yet that quartet didn't get close to Cue Card and Vautour. Subsequent Gold Cup winner Don Cossack was unlucky, of course, falling two out when looking a huge danger, but the front two had it between themselves after that and they pulled 13 lengths clear of Al Ferof, filling third position in the race for the third year running.

It looked Vautour's race three out, two out, after the last and even five yards from home, but Cue Card pulled an unlikely win out of the fire with a late lunge as the duo served up a proper Christmas cracker.

Arguably, it was Vautour's finest performance and that at a right-handed track which didn't play to his strengths. The manner of the defeat raised questions about his ability to stay the Gold Cup distance, though, and it therein started the debate about which race he would run in at the Festival.

Would it be the Gold Cup, the Ryanair, or even a daring drop back in trip for the Champion Chase? As the Festival preview evening circuit gained momentum, it became clear that the Gold Cup was the only option. "It's the Gold Cup or we'll stay at home," said owner Rich Ricci.

It was a blow to ante-post punters, then, when Vautour was declared for the Ryanair Chase without so much of a hint from connections that he would be. Mullins said afterwards that he hadn't been happy with him in the build-up, and that he nearly missed Cheltenham altogether.

News of his uninspiring homework didn't reach Festival punters, however. Vautour was heavily backed on race day, going off even-money favourite for his third successive Festival win. Once again, the result never looked in doubt.

With no Cue Card or Don Cossack to worry about, Vautour dealt with his Ryanair opposition in the way his previous Festival appearances promised he would. Vautour is French for vulture, and this lot were easy prey.

Little did we know then, that this was as good as it was going to get for a freakishly talented horse. A rare jumping lapse caught him out in the Melling Chase at Aintree, while the drop back in trip to two miles did for him at Punchestown. Perhaps he didn't have the speed for two miles, after all. Perhaps he was feeling the effects of his Liverpool fall.

This seven-year-old retained so much promise ahead of what was to be his fifth season in training. So unexposed still over three miles, he'd only run over the distance once in his life, in that King George. It was no surprise he was favourite for this year's renewal.

Yet it will be the Cheltenham Festival where he'll be missed the most.

And when we think of Vautour in the future, if we're in his grandstand, his bar, gazing at his statue or poring over the runners in a race named after him, the conversations will begin with how good he was in the Supreme, the Ryanair, that sexy JLT.

Then someone will pipe up with the question: 'Would he have ever won the Gold Cup?'

And it's sad we will never be able to give a definitive answer to that.

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