Admirers of Big Zeb might almost have found something propitious in the fact that Punchestown was only passed fit for racing after a third inspection yesterday morning. For here is a horse whose fragile jumping makes him seem perennially on thin ice, no matter how serenely he can sometimes go about his work.
He certainly cut a pretty convincing dash in the Tied Cottage Chase, disposing of Golden Silver in a manner that permits no doubt as to Ireland's best hope for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival next month. Big Zeb is now as short as 5-1 in places, but some punters will not yet find it in their hearts to pardon his record in Britain so far – comprising a nasty fall in the same race last season, just as he was beginning to make ground, and that horribly timid exhibition behind Twist Magic at Sandown in December.
Still, even the harshest judges should acknowledge the cogency between Colm Murphy's explanation for that display, and his skill in restoring the horse's confidence in the meantime. Murphy blamed himself for Sandown, but on the same basis he should not be too modest about the transformation in Big Zeb yesterday.
This time he jumped each fence better than the previous one, superb when leaping past Mansony four out and discovering fresh energy for the remaining obstacles even as he began to idle in front. Golden Silver, in fairness, himself seemed lacking the gusto of his success at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting. Jumping lethargically, he was getting reminders by halfway, and when he came back on the bridle to challenge he did so only briefly. In the end Big Zeb won by seven lengths, Golden Silver just holding Mansony for second.
"I'm delighted with that," Murphy said. "He's had his problems in the past, but I think we've ironed them out now. We'll freshen him up, and then it's on to Cheltenham. It's nice to be going over there on the back of that. We probably shouldn't have sent him over to Sandown – I blame myself for that. But we've done a lot of schooling with him, and his jumping was brilliant."
The Co Wexford trainer, who confirmed that Big Zeb had required treatment for a bony growth in a pastern, added that his best mare, Voler La Vedette, is recuperating well from problems of her own. Scratched from the Irish Champion Hurdle after pulling a muscle, she will now be kept to the company of her own sex in the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle at the Festival.
When at his most robust, both physically and mentally, there is no doubt that Big Zeb has the raw ability to cause problems for Master Minded. That was exactly what he was doing at Punchestown last April, after all, until his jumping frailties intruded at the last fence. Since their meeting at Sandown, of course, Twist Magic has continued to re-invent himself and he remains preferred in most lists as second favourite behind his stablemate, Master Minded – Ladbrokes typical in going 13-8, 6-1 and 7-1.
That state of affairs merely reiterates the phenomenal strength in depth of their trainer, Paul Nicholls, who left Festival Trials Day on Saturday with a still tighter grip on the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself. Taranis, his Argento Chase winner, seems unlikely to intervene in the showdown between Kauto Star and Denman, but certainly makes it possible that Nicholls could become sole tenant of the podium.
Not that Nicholls proved invincible on Saturday, when he had favourites turned over in both novice hurdles. At least he got them on the track, which is more than anyone managed at Doncaster after the return of deep frost. Both today's jumps meetings have been abandoned, while the loss of Hereford yesterday typified the complications being created for trainers – Somersby being so denied a rehearsal for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy. Henrietta Knight now hopes to run him at Doncaster on Saturday.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Penrod Ballantyne (5.20 Wolverhampton) Sent off 66-1 for his debut in what looked a decent maiden at Leicester last autumn, but was still going nicely – and shaping to challenge – when badly impeded. Could prove a cut above his rivals.
Claddagh (3.50 Wolverhampton)
Starts life in handicaps off a modest rating and could come to life here, having been green on his debut and laboured since in two runs on Southwell's more demanding surface.
One to watch
Rebel Dancer (P J Hobbs) has been allowed to find his feet in three spins over hurdles, showing enough at Ffos Las recently to suggest that he may have more to offer than the handicapper indicated in his initial rating.
Where the money's going
Blackstair Mountain was an impressive winner for Willie Mullins at Punchestown yesterday. Introduced at 14-1 by Totesport in the Spinal Research Supreme Novices' Hurdle.