Ruby Walsh excited ahead of Vautour's Ascot return
Ruby Walsh is relishing the prospect of being reunited with the brilliant Vautour in Saturday's Stella Artois 1965 Chase at Ascot.
So impressive was the Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old in annihilating his rivals in last season's JLT Novices' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, he now heads ante-post lists for both the King George VI Chase at Kempton and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
He returns to Britain for his seasonal reappearance in this two-mile-five-furlong Grade Two and Walsh is taking confidence from the excellent form of the stable.
He said: " He seems well, he worked well on Tuesday morning and the conditions of the race in Ascot suit.
"He'll definitely improve for his run on Saturday, but our horses seem to be hitting form. Maybe they're more forward than we think.
"He's a horse we've always thought a hell of a lot of. I love him. I just think he has so much natural ability and he's so straightforward.
"I didn't quite expect him to be as good as he was (at Cheltenham), but he was magnificent, I thought. It was a good race and what he did from three out was spectacular."
With Vautour never having raced beyond two and a half miles, Walsh admits he still has his stamina to prove, but expects the King George to be a good indicator as to whether the Gold Cup is a realistic Festival target.
He told Racing UK: " The King George should tell you where you're going. If you don't win the King George you're probably not going to win the Gold Cup, so that will probably guide us. He seems to be really well and we're happy with him."
Despite being rated 12lb inferior, the Paul Nicholls-trained Ptit Zig must concede 5lb to the formidable Irish challenger following an impressive seasonal reappearance in the Powers Irish Whisky Chase at Down Royal three weeks ago.
Part-owner Barry Fulton is under no illusions about the task facing his charge, but is nevertheless looking forward to the challenge.
He said: "It looks a very tough race with Vautour coming over and the conditions of the race aren't very favourable, but our horse is in good form and I believe he had a really good schooling session on Wednesday.
"Vautour is a very impressive horse, but we don't have too far to travel and we'll give it a go."
A bold show could earn Ptit Zig a potential rematch with Vautour over Christmas.
Nicholls, who has won this prize four times in the last five years, said: " He will definitely have an entry in the King George. He is going to Ascot, then he might go for the Peterborough Chase. I don't know about the King George, we will see. It would be a big ask and a step up."
O'Faolains Boy won the RSA Chase for Rebecca Curtis at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival, but has been sidelined since suffering an injury at Aintree the following month.
Curtis is confident her eight-year-old has lost none of his talent ahead of his comeback over a trip short of his best.
"He worked very well the other day and has been fine since. The horse is perfect, so we're looking forward to getting him started," said the Welsh trainer.
"He just had a small tear in a tendon which is absolutely fine now. He is a very sound horse and we have never really had any issues with him. We will have to take on Vautour but hopefully it will give us a nice prep run and give him the chance to have a good blow.
"He seems to be much stronger and there is no doubt that he still retains the same ability. I'm still hoping that he might turn into a Gold Cup-type horse and we will be working our way back up to that level.
"I actually think he is on a nice mark as he has been dropped to 150. I entered him in the Welsh National and he could be interesting off that mark, while the Lexus Chase is also a possibility for him. We will see how he comes out of the race, but it's nice to have him back."
Colin Tizzard's Third Intention and the Charlie Mann-trained Seventh Sky complete the small but select field of five.