For the second Sunday in succession, it would seem that events in Ireland ticked another box in the "Cheltenham bankers" column. Seven days after Hurricane Fly showed that his grip on his two-mile hurdles crown is not for prising, Sizing Europe presented his own persuasive case ahead of the defence of his two-mile chasing title.
Yesterday's Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown represented the final Festival warm-up for both Sizing Europe and his chief rival, Big Zeb. The two geldings went to the fray with remarkably similar credentials – both veterans of 28 races, both winners of 13, including one each of the last two Queen Mother Champion Chases, with the score two-all in their four previous meetings – and were hard to split in the betting, with Sizing Europe just shading it at 9-10 to Big Zeb's even-money.
The decider, though, proved just that. Andrew Lynch on Sizing Europe, who was racing for the first time since early December, allowed the third runner in the Grade 2 contest, 66-1 no-hoper Imperial Shabra, to lead until the second fence, before seizing the initiative with a strong, no-nonsense pace, despite heavy, testing ground.
The underfoot conditions at the sodden Co Kildare track were not ideal for either of the two class horses, but Sizing Europe coped very much the better, both galloping through the mire and jumping out of it. The 10-year-old left Big Zeb, a year his senior, labouring 15 lengths in his wake as he powered clear from the final turn and there is no reason to reason that all things will not remain unequal next month.
Certainly, bookmakers do not; Sizing Europe's prospects of another Champion Chase success five weeks on Wednesday are now rated between evens and 6-4. Conversely, Big Zeb has been pushed out to 6-1, vying for second favouritism with the best British-trained contender Finian's Rainbow.
"I told Andrew to be positive and let him race properly and to enjoy himself," said the winner's trainer, Henry de Bromhead. "He popped a few of the fences because of the ground, didn't let fly, but it was a savage performance. Hopefully all will be well in the morning and we'll rock on to Cheltenham."
Lynch was equally impressed with Alan Potts's colourbearer. "He's got a huge stride and I wanted to use it," he said. "Sure, the ground was tacky enough for him. But he's stronger than he was, and got through it. And he'll be better for this, he hadn't run for a while."
Chris McGrath's Nap: Sydney Paget (2.0 Ayr)
A repeat of his runner-up effort at Haydock five weeks ago should be good enough.
Next best: Neptune Equester (3.40 Ayr)
Out-and-out stayer who could not cope with much better company over the last two and should appreciate the drop in class.
One to watch: Patsy Finnegan (Alan King)
An encouraging fourth at Taunton last month on only his second outing of the season, remains on an attractive mark.
Where the money's going: Trifolium was cut to 12-1 from 25s for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham after his Grade 2 victory at Punchestown yesterday.