Vautour – A Gazelle In Equine Form

It doesn’t matter how many times you visit, a trip to Prestbury Park in the middle of March is special.  Close your eyes as they circle at the start of the Supreme Novices Hurdle, you can feel the energy crackle on your skin.  The long winter nights, dreaming of Cheltenham glory come down to a snippet of life at the foot of Cleeve Hill.  An equine battle of gladiatorial proportions where only one can emerge victorious,  The crowd finding their throat, the rumble becomes a roar, the tapes fly back and suddenly the cacophony hits its crescendo and they are on their way to crown the Festival’s first champion.

The 11th of March 2014, the beginning of another Festival.  Irving had been favourite for the opener but the Irish had an ace up their sleeve.  A bay with a white blaze was waiting in the wings, ready to enter stage left and stamp himself on the Festival.  Gazelle De Mai, herself a Listed winner, gave birth on the 19th of May 2009.  She had been one of the last to be covered by Robin Des Champs in France before the sire moved to Ireland to take up duties.  Bred by Patrick Joubert (who also bred Silviniaco Conti) he admits that the real hard work in those early days was done by Nicolas de Lageneste who reared the young horse.  Little could they have dreamt at the time that less than five years later, the horses names would be on the lips of everyone in attendance, Vautour.

Bounced out handy by Ruby Walsh, Vautour had tanked his way to a definite lead as the field headed away from the stands.  Walsh would gradually turn the screw, settling the contest with a potent turn of foot rounding the home turn.  The victory broke the longstanding course record for the race set by Istabraq and a campaign based around a tilt at the Champion Hurdle the following season would have come as no surprise.  Willie Mullins knew better however, 4/4 for the Master of Closutton over hurdles, he had long been earmarked as a chaser and it would be over the bigger obstacles that he would really rise to super-stardom.

It was not quite so straightforward over fences however.  An early error at Leopardstown on Boxing Day was the precursor to a worse blunder five fences from home when down on his nose.  A seventeen length beating from Clarcam didn’t burst the Vautour bubble but it cast a serious question mark on the hype that he would carry all before him over fences.  A win at the same track in a 3 runner race just a few weeks later told the general public little and it was a little surprising that with his jumping seemingly suspect that connections went straight to the Festival and the JLT novice chase.

If there is a solitary thing that one can be sure of however, it’s that when it comes to priming horses for the big occasion, there are few better than Mullins.  Vautour arrived in Gloucestershire looking a million dollars, heavily supported in the market, backers never had a worrying moment.  Jumped out in front, the return to a quicker surface saw Vautour stag-like at his fences.  The quicker he went, the better he jumped, Irish Saint paying for trying to go with him early and as they came down the hill, one could almost see the widening grin on Walsh’s face.  An inch of rain let out round the home turn and Vautour took off, an extra gear found, he winged the second last, pulling further clear to thrash Apache Stronghold fifteen lengths.

There are some displays, where even those of us who have watched racing a long time rub our eyes in disbelief.  A look to check that those around saw the same as you did, a monster in the making, reminiscent of Concorde as with the slightest of squeezes from Walsh, he put the race to bed in mere strides.  “Flawless” was the simple conclusion by the main whose job was merely to hold on and enjoy the ride.  ” I think he´ll stay, we´re definitely going down the Gold Cup route” quoted Mullins in the aftermath and so began one of the biggest racing debates seen in recent years.

A hard fought win began the 2015/16 season over Ptit Zig at Ascot.  Vautour jumped markedly left at a number of fences but as a horse who Mullins had previously stated needed plenty of hard work, it was a satisfactory return.  Boxing Day 2015 was D-Day, will he or won’t he?  The jumping that had let him down at Ascot was much improved, travelling so strongly at four out that Walsh had nothing left to tow him into the contest.  Setting sail for home with Cue Card and Don Cossack under pressure behind, Vautour looked like answering the question with a resounding yes.  Cue Card had other ideas however, picking up for pressure on the run-in, he denied Vautour in a pulsating finish worthy of any Grade 1 Chase.

A late change of heart by connections after disappointing in work at home saw Vautour take on the Ryanair Chase rather than the Gold Cup when he arrived at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival.  He may have been working poorly at home with Djakadam but once on the hallowed Cheltenham turf, the ears pricked, the spring returned to his step and a three time champion at the Festival at the tender age of 7 was rarely ever in doubt.  Road To Riches briefly looked a threat turning for home but as in years past, Walsh merely let out an inch of rein and Vautour once again responded.  The abiding memory for all watching on television was Channel 4 commentator, Simon Holt, shouting above the roar of the crowd, coining the now infamous phrase which will forever be associated with him, “a gazelle in equine form.”

It will never be easy losing a loved one, especially one held so close to the collective heart of racing.  When Stratford Ponds stepped at the 3rd last at Kempton on the 19th of October 1991 and never got up, devastation ruled as a personal champion was carried off the course.  Accidents can happen at any time, a stark reminder this week when Vautour, still in the throes of youth was found to have broken a foreleg when out in a field.  We will never see that white blaze leading then up the Cheltenham hill again but his memory will live on, ingrained in racing psyche as one of the finest of his or any other generation.

As the ghosts of Yankee Stadium would fly in October, lifting home run balls over the fences and Red Rum buried by the winning post at Aintree guides future generations of National winners, so will Vautour hover over Cheltenham for generations to come.  The now famous pink silks with green spots will be carried at future Festivals but we will always remember Vautour who lit up Cheltenham’s natural amphitheatre with his presence three times, if only it could have been more.

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