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Five talking points from Day 3 of the Cheltenham FestivalPosted on Thursday 17th March 2016 @ 19.16

Will Rooney picks out five of the key talking points from the third day of the 2016 Cheltenham Festival

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STANDING STARTS NEED TO BE A THING OF THE PAST

For those who had money on Zabana in the JLT Novices' Chase, they did not even get a chance to have a sweat on for a return.

The Cheltenham Festival is the pinnacle of National Hunt racing and connections are filled with excitement to see their horses run in every contest.

It's quite remarkable that standing starts exist in jump racing, especially in Grade 1 races that have just nine runners competing.

Before Davy Russell could take a single stride in the opening race of the day, he was dumped off Zabana as the rest of the field took off in pursuit of victory.

From what was apparent on television, there was a distinct lack of coherence at the start of the race. They slowed up to less than a stroll and Russell thought they were going to do a full turn to start the race at a slow canter as usual.

However, before Russell could react, Zabana threw him out of the side door and all he could do was watch the opposition gallop off.

It's understandable that Cheltenham have to try and start races as close to the scheduled off time as possible so other fixtures going on can also start on time for broadcasting purposes.

Nonetheless, such mistakes should not be happening at the top level and not in any race, in fact, and the rules need to be assessed quickly.

MASTERFUL MULLINS

Those who backed Vautour ante-post for the Gold Cup will only naturally ponder what could have happened if he had taken his chance in the blue riband of the meeting.

The son of Robin Des Champs was simply majestic throughout on his way to his Ryanair Chase victory and showed a devastating turn of foot to dispatch Road To Riches within a matter of strides.

Much like Yorkhill on Wednesday, Willie Mullins decided to switch Vautour at the last minute and, once again, it proved to be the right move.

In the wake of victory, Ruby Walsh admitted that the seven-year-old had only been working ordinary last weekend and was only 90% fit, the reason why they skipped the Gold Cup.

No matter how talented a horse is, it takes a fine training performance to switch him back to a shorter trip and get him spot on for the race.

Vautour was facing fierce competition that included last year's Gold Cup third Road To Riches and stablemate Valseur Lido but he dismantled the competition with an exuberant round of jumping to win in regal style.

BETTER THAN PAST GREATS?

The World Hurdle down the years has produced some magnificent winners that have come back and won the race multiple times and retained their crowns.

Big Buck's touched the heart of the public for his four incredible straight wins, Inglis Drever registered three victories in the race and Baracouda also managed a back-to-back double in 2002 and 2003.

The three aforementioned were all highly-talented geldings in their own right; however, following Thistlecrack's performance, they all likely couldn't lay a glove on him.

Colin Tizzard's charge has been a revelation since stepping up to three miles and winning the Grade 1 Sefton Novices' Hurdle at Aintree last season and it's quite remarkable that, just over a year ago, he finished just fifth in the Imperial Cup off a mark of 135.

The son of Kayf Tara has progressed and progressed this term, scooping up big races such as the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot and the Cleeve Hurdle at Prestbury Park in January effortlessly.

Given what he had done on the track, it was surprising Thistlecrack went off as big as he did and, given the manner he won in, even money represented huge value.

He blew a highly-competitive field apart on the bridle under Tom Scudamore. He relished the strong pace set by Cole Harden before putting his rivals to the sword coming into the home straight.

Bryan Cooper, for a second successive race, tried to match the hot favourite on Alpha Des Obeaux, but he was no match for Thistlecrack and likely knew he was fighting a losing battle when the skirmish began.

Thistlecrack could now head for the Gold Cup next season and, if he can transform his talent over hurdles to fences, he will be a leading player in the race.

WATCH OUT FOR LIMINI

Given the incredible arsenal the Mullins team had heading into the Festival, they felt that Limini was the yard's best chance of the week.

A mare who had run just twice previously, albeit winning both starts in effortless fashion, she was all the rage in the betting and ensured bookmakers had a St Patrick's Day to forget.

The daughter of Peintre Celebre was a smart performer on the Flat in France but she's taken a giant leap forward since joining the prolific County Carlow trainer.

The only negative surrounding her in the parade ring was that her jumping had been sketchy in her previous two starts; however, it came as no surprise that Mullins put that right since her last run at Fairyhouse and she jumped foot-perfect.

Victory was never in doubt as Walsh sat confidently on her in midfield. Turning into the home straight, Limini looked short of room but Walsh, like the experienced veteran he is, did not panic and soon loomed up on the leading pack and won on the bridle by four-and-a-half lengths.

Limini has been talked about in the absolute highest regard by connections in the past, with Walsh once saying she has the ability to win the Yorkshire Oaks.

Rich Ricci enjoyed a fruitful campaign on the Flat last season with Max Dynamite, who won the Lonsdale Cup at York and also finished an admirable second in the Melbourne Cup.

The quick conditions seemed to be relished by Limini and she could be a player in big Flat races in the upcoming season. It would be no surprise if, come November, she makes the long trip down under.

THE BIG ONE AWAITS

What a three days of racing we've witnessed at Cheltenham.

The highlight is undoubtedly Sprinter Sacre coming back from the jaws of defeat to recapturing his Champion Chase crown in incredible style, but further wins for favourites Annie Power, Thistlecrack and Vautour are exactly why National Hunt racing is as special as it is.

If that wasn't enough, there still is a vintage renewal of the Gold Cup to come.

Although Coneygree is unable to defend his crown, it still is a flawless affair that racing fans are licking their lips over.

The betting shows how competitive the contest is and picking a winner will be difficult.

Bryan Cooper, who got off the mark for the Festival with a win on Empire Of Dirt in the Stable Plate, opts to ride Don Cossack in the Gold Cup. Those who fancy Gigginstown's other horse, Don Poli, will be far from disappointed that Russell gets the leg-up on him after riding two winners so far.

Djakadam would be defending his crown if Coneygree had gone down the novice route last year and he's a dour stayer who loves getting into a fight, and will be have the services of the masterful Walsh.

And what about if Cue Card won? The masses at Cheltenham could possibly cheer even louder than when Sprinter Sacre romped up the hill.

It's also easy to forget about Smad Place. This season's Hennessy Gold Cup and Cotswolds Chase winner has been rejuvenated since adopting front-running tactics.

Whoever comes out on top will be a worthy winner and stamp themselves into the history books.

Article Posted on Thursday 17th March 2016 @ 19.16

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