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Walsh's Gold Cup dilemmaPosted on Saturday 23rd January 2016 @ 13.58

The Cheltenham Festival is the pinnacle of jump racing and everything is geared around the four-day showpiece in March.

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The Gold Cup is the Blue Riband of the meeting and to have a ride in the race is a privilege in its own right for any jockey. But to have the choice of two market leaders who have a realistic chance of winning the race is another.

Ruby Walsh had the dilemma of choosing Kauto Star or Denman for his mount in the feature race of the Festival for four years straight. He only won the race once when the two Paul Nicholls-trained iron horses lined up for battle, which was on Kauto Star in 2009, with Denman triumphing by seven lengths a year earlier under Sam Thomas.

Although it was a tough decision for Walsh to make, it was one he would not have minded. He likely spent a lengthy spell of time deciding which horse to ride, although he was always faithful to the legendary green and yellow silks of Kauto Star on each occasion.

Walsh faces a similar problem this year. The Willie Mullins-Walsh partnership has become a deadly combination in jump racing. Mullins has accumulated an incredible arsenal at his County Carlow yard and he has the opposition running scared for most races.

The pink and polka-dot silks of Rich Ricci have become more and more familiar over the years. The American business tycoon is Mullins' most successful from a long list of lucrative owners in the yard, which also includes the likes of Graham Wylie, and Simon Munir & Issac Souede, and the sheer firepower he has is incredible.

From Faugheen to Douvan to Min, Ricci looks set to triumph in a number of the most prestigious races at Cheltenham in March. But one race Ricci - nor Mullins, in fact - has won, is the Gold Cup.

They may dominate every other aspect of the sport, but they're still to snatch the crown in the jewel in British racing.

Things could well change in just under two months' time and Walsh will already be weighing up which of Ricci and Mullins' protagonists he will ride.

Vautour was the first horse in the Ricci silks to really set jumps racing alight. Although Champagne Fever won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle in 2013 and Mikael D'Haguenet picked up a few nice pots in Ireland, Vautour's magical performance in the 2014 Supreme Novices' Hurdle started it all.

Walsh has always admitted how highly he regards the son of Robin Des Champs and Mullins also regarded his 2014 Festival victory higher than Faugheen's, who took the spoils in the Neptune Management Novices' Hurdle a day later.

Chasing has always been Vautour's main target. The way he jumped timber during his novices' hurdle campaign suggested he would take to larger obstacles like a duck to water and indeed that has been the case.

The seven-year-old cruised to victory in the JLT Novices' Chase at the Festival last year, displaying an impeccable front-running round of jumping to romp to a 15-length victory. The way he approached his obstacles was poetry in motion and Walsh was delighted by the gelding's performance.

His outstanding effort was why many thought he could well be the 2016 Gold Cup winner.

Although he's had two largely under-par performances this term, he's still a leading player in the race. Vautour ground out a victory in the 1965 Chase at Ascot on his seasonal reappearance when in receipt of weight from Ptit Zig in November before being nailed by the resolute Cue Card in the King George VI on Boxing Day at Cheltenham.

There are some who feel Vautour should go for the Champion Chase and others the Ryanair as he has yet to prove conclusively that he stays three miles-plus, but vibes from the Mullins yard are that the Gold Cup is firmly still on his agenda.

Much like Kauto Star, Vautour has pace, stamina and attacks his fences ruthlessly, a scary combination in what looks set to be a vintage Gold Cup. He's got a 100% record at Cheltenham and, if anything, should improve significantly racing left-handed.

His least impressive performances have come in the 1965, King George and the Champion Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival almost two years ago, all of which were on right-handed circuits.

However, Walsh still also has a 'Denman' who he could choose.

When Djakadam crossed the Irish Sea for the 2014 Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, he was seen as a banker for many. In the Ricci colours, he carried just 10-11 off, what was thought to be, a lenient mark of 142.

Like many Mullins horses in a British handicap chase, Djakadam flattered to deceive as he finished just eighth.

It's highly unlikely anyone backed Djakadam each-way for the Gold Cup following the performance at the Berkshire track. But, he surprised almost everyone.

An impressive eight-length triumph in the Thyestes Chase on heavy ground at Gowran Park under top weight made many sit up and take note. Prior to the contest, Mullins did not have a stand-out Gold Cup contender; it looked a contest out of both Boston Bob and On His Own's depth, even if the latter had finished runner-up in the race a year prior.

Given that Coneygree has been described as a superstar for his victory in the Gold Cup, being the first novice in 37 years to do so, it's quite remarkable that there are some people who take jibes at Djakadam's form. He was just one-and-a-half lengths behind Coneygree and is open to further improvement being just six at the time of the race.

Djakadam looks a dour stayer, but he also showed he has another string to his bow when winning the John Durkan Memorial Chase in comfortable fashion on his first start of this season.

The 2m4f trip proved no problem for the gelding at Punchestown. He beat stablemate and former Grade 1 winner Valseur Lido by 12 lengths, and he's sure to improve when running in the Cotswold Chase at Prestbury Park at the end of the month.

Much like in the Champion Hurdle last year, when deciding between Faugheen or Hurricane Fly, Walsh will make his mind up late – and what a position he is in to make such a decision.

[Will Rooney]

Article Posted on Saturday 23rd January 2016 @ 13.58

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