Much the best race of the weekend is scheduled at Punchestown tomorrow, when Sizing Europe and Big Zeb extend a rivalry that continues to set standards for the emerging steeplechasers over two miles. Moreover, the course management seems optimistic that the card – also featuring a valuable novice hurdle, in which Simenon tries to follow up a 23-length success at Cork for Willie Mullins – will beat the weather.
With the only other declared runner looking hopelessly out of his depth, the Boylesports Tied Cottage Chase is essentially a match. It must be said that Sizing Europe has sometimes failed to gain due respect as one of the outstanding achievers of recent seasons.
Perhaps that partly reflects those obstinate experiments over three miles, but his trainer, Henry de Bromhead, has done a brilliant job overall with a horse who was being roundly written off as long as four years ago. In those days, for some reason he simply was not finishing his races. With hindsight, whatever was ailing him probably prevented Sizing Europe adding the 2008 Champion Hurdle to wins over fences at the last two Festivals.
He looked as good as ever at Sandown in December, yet the chances are that he will not be at his peak tomorrow. He was only third of five in this race last year, and will have the same excuses available this time – namely, heavy ground and a greater priority still over five weeks away.
Big Zeb, another past winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, even at 11 is unbeaten since chasing home Sizing Europe on their last visit to Cheltenham. He can win this skirmish, but the decisive battle is still to come.
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