“We were probably minding him too much earlier in the season. “I thought the race was over turning for home, it was just a case of jumping, and he absolutely flew over the last two.” Mullins, bagging his sixth winner of the week, went on: “He was good the first day, but then things went wrong at Christmas. He won the last day and then I’ve been very hard on him to try and get him back in last year’s form. He’s just turned a corner, but he needed all that hard work. “We’ve managed to keep the good horses apart this year, we might come to England a bit more and France. “Dermot, who looks after Vautour, is a fluent Japanese speaker and went over there with Blackstairmountain so we may even look at that again, that’s another option.” Mullins confirmed he sees his star as a horse for the blue riband. He said: “He’s that good (Gold Cup), he was like the one yesterday (Don Poli, winner of RSA Chase), but I think he’ll stay, we’re definitely going down the Gold Cup route. “You need plenty, it’s hard to get chasers to that standard every year. You hope you might get one Gold Cup horse out of 100 horses. “When you get one near that mark you go for it. “He’s strong enough for soft ground, but probably better ground suits him.” Walsh continued: “He jumped like a gazelle. He was flawless. He just ran them ragged.” Paul Nicholls was happy enough with the efforts of Irish Saint and Ptit Zig, but feels both will benefit from a step up in trip in due course. He said: “They both really want three miles. We weren’t going to come here with Irish Saint but we thought there’s a month between now and Aintree and he will now go over three miles there. “That was the fastest going Ptit Zig’s run on, he was going OK until he made a mistake and that put him on the back foot.” Stablemate Valseur Lido briefly looked a threat, along with Apache Stronghold and Ptit Zig, but Vautour sprinted clear off the home turn and the 6-4 favourite put 15 lengths distance between himself and the rest. Apache Stronghold just upheld the form with Valseur Lido from the Flogas Chase, but in truth there was only one in it. Walsh said: “He wasn’t right at Christmas, but from the first time we started schooling him I was taken with him. “This lad has it all. He was going his own speed – I’m taken with him. There’s some summer dreaming to be done with this one.” Owner Rich Ricci said: “I can’t ever remember seeing a novice jump like that at Cheltenham. “He’s a different horse round here, for some reason. It was unbelievable, breathtaking, actually. “We’ll step up in distance next season and see where we go.” Mullins said: “I’ve loved this horse all the time, but I had to really work hard at him for the last three weeks. An impressive winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last season, the Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old had a question to answer having been beaten at Christmas, but the market vibes were strong. He never missed a beat under Ruby Walsh and put in some spectacular leaps on the way round, having the rest of the field in trouble from some way out. Press Association Vautour bounced right back to his brilliant best to win the JLT Novices’ Chase by a wide margin at the Cheltenham Festival.
Guard Josh Gasser reacts after hitting the Badgers’ third three-pointer in a row to take a 9-2 lead early on Jan. 18 against Northwestern.[/media-credit]In a deeper-than-usual Big Ten this season, the Wisconsin Badgers have been challenged early and often through the first seven games of their conference slate.Though they were riding a three-game winning streak entering Sunday’s game at Illinois, the Badgers initially dropped three of their first four games in Big Ten play. After beating newcomer Nebraska on the road Dec. 27, Wisconsin lost its next three, at home to Iowa, at home to Michigan State and at Michigan.More than anything else, the two consecutive losses at the Kohl Center were most stunning for the Badgers, a team that takes great pride in its home record. Back on Dec. 3, Marquette snapped Wisconsin’s 23-game home winning streak. For the season, the Badgers are 2-2 at home in Big Ten play. The mark, though a result of several different contests, has one fairly simple common denominator – shooting.After wins, UW players and coaches celebrate the team’s depth and the balanced scoring it fosters.“Since our scoring is so balanced, other teams have to cover everybody on our team every night,” guard/forward Ryan Evans said after Wisconsin’s 77-57 win over Northwestern on Jan. 18. “That’s big because you don’t know who is going to be hot, and you can’t just focus on one person.”Following losses, which have seen the Badgers shoot as poorly as 16 for 51 from the field (31.4 percent, against Michigan Jan. 8), the explanations are harder to come by. For a team that, as usual, blazed through its non-conference schedule with frequent lights-out shooting efforts, Wisconsin’s hot-and-cold manifested itself at the worst time, right near the beginning of Big Ten play.In that three-game losing streak, the Badgers posted three of their four worst shooting percentages of the conference season, never hitting above 34.8 percent. In the second game against Nebraska Jan. 15, which Wisconsin ultimately won 50-45, the Badgers were just 15 for 48 from the field (31.3 percent), though they reached the foul line 48 times and hit 18 (75 percent).“The game doesn’t change for us, what we’re trying to do,” head coach Bo Ryan said. “It’s just at times, everybody goes through this with shooting. I’ve seen it more in the past couple years than probably 10 years combined – just kind of the swings in shooting percentages, in guys’ confidence, in guys being comfortable in what they’re doing.”As usual, Wisconsin’s saving grace has been its defense. The Badgers lead the nation in both points allowed per game (49.0) and opposing field goal percentage (35.4 percent). But with uncharacteristic struggles – a relative term, as the Badgers are still fourth in the Big Ten at 71.7 percent from the free throw line but subpar for a Ryan-coached team – from the charity stripe, the inconsistent shooting performances have the ability to derail Wisconsin’s season against a tough Big Ten slate.“We knew that going into the year that it was going to be a night-in, night-out grind, even more so than it normally is in the league just because there are so many good teams,” point guard Jordan Taylor said.Aside from the weak shooting in the win over Nebraska, Wisconsin’s three-game winning streak has seen a pair of its finest shooting efforts of the season. On the road at Purdue – Mackey Arena is consistently one of the nation’s toughest venues, especially for a team having lost three in a row – the Badgers sunk 47.5 percent of their shots and 45 percent from three-point range. Against Northwestern Wednesday, Wisconsin was 50 percent from the field (27-of-54) and 52.2 percent from three-point (12-of-23).“I think a lot of guys spent a lot of time in the gym, myself included,” forward Mike Bruesewitz said of UW’s improved shooting effort. “I think everybody has done that. There have been a lot of extra hours after practice, before practice. We do that anyways, but we’ve been in kind of a slump.“Also we’re moving quite a bit better without the basketball. We’re making good cuts and getting a little bit more open shots, and that’s why they are falling.”For Ryan, tasked with quelling the worries prompted by his team’s up-and-down shooting while simultaneously finding ways to improve it, the answers are relatively straightforward.“You don’t whine, you don’t complain, you don’t feel sorry for yourself – you just play and practice and practice and practice some more,” Ryan said. “It’s always all smiles when the ball’s going down.”