Returning Vautour battles to Ascot victory for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh
While the performance may not have been a vintage one, Vautour ensured his return to action ended on a winning note in the Stella Artois 1965 Chase at Ascot.
Although not putting in the sort of electrifying performance that saw him capture the JLT Novices' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival by 15 lengths last season, the Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old had enough in hand to record a battling success in the Grade Two event.
Ruby Walsh had the 2-5 favourite at the head of the field from the off, a position he was to maintain throughout the two-mile-five-furlong affair.
Settled into a good rhythm up front, all seemed to be going well for the four-times Grade One winner on his first try over the trip until he ploughed through the seventh fence from home.
Despite the scare, Walsh sat tight and quickly got the odds-on favourite back into his stride with his momentum seemingly unchecked by the shuddering mistake. Approaching the penultimate fence Walsh still exuded confidence, while Sam Twiston-Davies was hard at work aboard Ptit Zig in second.
Once asked the question, the acceleration from Vautour was not immediate as Ptit Zig drew almost upsides to momentarily heighten the chances of a shock result.
However, any thoughts of victory for the Paul Nicholls-trained runner were soon extinguished as a bold leap over the last saw Vautour open up a valuable advantage again, with the Rich Ricci-owned gelding battling on valiantly to score by a length and three-quarters.
Following the race Vautour was eased for the King George, with Betfred going 9-4 from 2-1 and Coral 5-2 from 9-4.
Ricci said: "I'd say he was about half fit today. He's jumped a bit left which can sometimes happens at Ascot, but he needed the run badly and I'm pleased with the way it went.
"I think we will get him fine-tuned for the King George and hopefully he is the horse we think he is. It was a great run and we're delighted with that.
"I hope he's a Gold Cup horse, but the King George will tell us a lot as to where we go for the rest of the season.
"He's certainly got the speed to be two-miler, but Ruby and Willie say he will do anything between two and four miles."
Although forced to work harder than he would have liked, Walsh was pleased enough with the performance.
He said: "He made a mistake at the bottom of the hill second time round, but he was quite fresh going to post. I just thought he was rusty.
"I was getting him to pop early on and then he came with a big one, the ditch, down the hill, and was spot on at the next.
"We went a good enough gallop. Ptit Zig had a run under his belt and was a good novice last year. He had match fitness.
"Ascot does take horses to the left over fences. I don't know why. The fences down the hill are all angled and makes it look a lot worse than it is. I wouldn't be worried about going left or right."