Oddschecker / Thursday 11th February 2016 / 08:53
The build-up to this year's Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival has all the makings of a Hollywood cliffhanger.
“Will they or won't they” appears to be the key question ahead of the festival's intermediate Grade One chase.
The lure of one of the most eagerly anticipated Cheltenham Gold Cups in recent times is tugging hard at the heartstrings for connections, most of whom are also being forced to consider that some of the most likely Ryanair winners may choose to fly a different route come March.
From a betting perspective, this has resulted in something of an ante-post minefield but, mercifully, with the festival countdown now in full swing, the non-runner no bet concessions are at last providing some safety for punters!
This race has centred around last year's JLT winner, Vautour, ever since he was collared close to home in the King George at Kempton Boxing Day.
Pigeon-holed as a non-stayer having seemingly travelled supremely well into a winning position, the perceived logic was that he would drop back in trip and canter to victory in the Ryanair Chase come the spring.
However, both his trainer, Willie Mullins, and jockey, Ruby Walsh, have steadfastly been sticking to their belief that Vautour can have his say in the Gold Cup. The general consensus among the experts appears to be that if Vautour runs in the Ryanair, he wins.
The likes of Smad Place and Vroum Vroum Mag are others for whom a case could easily be built in this race but their festival destinations apparently lie elsewhere.
One horse with his colours firmly nailed to the Ryanair mast is Al Ferof, who is a former winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle whose Cheltenham form figures read 2F11415.
In rude health following a summer switch from Paul Nicholls' yard to Dan Skelton, he hacked up in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon on his first start before yet again plugging on for third in the King George at a trip which clearly is not his best.
He has a terrific record when fresh and, having been off since December, the 2m4f trip here will be very much to his liking. He finished fifth behind Dynaste in this race two years ago but that came on the back of a three-mile prep run at Newbury a little over 30 days earlier. The likeable grey could be an altogether different proposition this time around.
Should Vautour defect, stablemate Valseur Lido could carry the hopes of the Mullins team. With some smart form behind his aforementioned stablemate in the JLT last March, he would be a worthy contender.
Closely matched with Valseur Lido is Enda Bolger's Gilgamboa, winner of the Ryanair Chase at Fairyhouse last April.
David Pipe knows what is required to win this festival contest and his King's Palace has been given a much more relaxed campaign this time around. A prodigious sort, King's Palace failed to carry the burden of expectation in each of the last two seasons at the festival.
Away from the glare of the festival, he has won four times in five starts around Prestbury Park and, with the potential for a small field in this race, he could get his optimum conditions at last on the big stage.
The 2016 renewal of the Ryanair Chase looks wide open, but the big question remains: who wants it?