The latest of several defending champions to return at short odds this week contains within his own career ample reproof against the assumptions made in their favour. Four years ago, Sizing Europe started hot favourite for the Champion Hurdle and so well was he going on the home turn that his backers were counting their money. A few bewildering seconds later he had dropped out to last place.
Trainers always stress that they can only be as good as their horses, but the reverse is also true, and Sizing Europe owes his fulfilment to a commensurate talent in Henry De Bromhead. That crushing disappointment proved only the first in a series of weak finishes, and many gave up on the horse. But De Bromhead put the pieces back together so effectively that Sizing Europe returns today in search of his third consecutive Festival success.
After winning the Arkle Chase as a novice, Sizing Europe graduated last year to an impressive success in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. This winter Sizing Europe has consolidated his standing as a steeplechaser at the peak of his powers. His brilliant jumping proved an overwhelming asset at Sandown in December, and last month he warmed up for the Festival by dishing out a comprehensive beating to Big Zeb at Punchestown. His proven felicity on this course and spring ground means that he will surely be hard to beat.
Big Zeb, who won this race in 2010 and finished second last year, may not have been at his best at Punchestown and this splendidly tough campaigner can be relied upon to keep the favourite honest. But the one with scope to improve is Finian's Rainbow, who proved slow to blossom earlier in the season and is expected to prove a different proposition today. Whether that is sufficient to usurp Sizing Europe (3.20) is another matter.
There is another hot favourite in the RSA Chase, Grands Crus having been kept to novice company after connections toyed with fast-tracking him to the Gold Cup. Speed remains his defining asset at this trip and he hardly conforms to the dour, hard-knocking profile typically required by this race.
Two that do are Bobs Worth and First Lieutenant, both winners over hurdles at last year's meeting. The former is expected to improve on his prep run at Ascot, when short of work following wind surgery, and is better suited by this track. But Mouse Morris was conspicuously satisfied that First Lieutenant (2.40 next best) could show as much as he did at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, knowing that he would reserve his very best for spring ground on this hill.
As one of Ireland's master trainers, Morris prompts automatic interest in Four Commanders (1.30 nap) in the Diamond Jubilee National Hunt Chase. With a top amateur booked in Nina Carberry, he jumps really well and remains totally unexposed on the good ground that so suited his full-brother, Kicking King.
The Neptune Investments Novices' Hurdle, looks difficult, but any who followed a recommendation for Batonnier (2.05) when he scored in January will have seen how he relished a strong gallop over this track. His trainer, Alan King, has been candid in his belief that Vendor (4.40) is extremely well treated in the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. He feels that a mistake at the last disguised the authority of Vendor's Newbury success and, while the value may have gone, he is clearly going to go pretty close.
In the Coral Cup, Poole Master (4.00) is officially 9lb well in under a penalty for an improved display stepped up to this trip at Newbury the other day.
The Irish again have a strong hand throughout the day, but they have lost their stranglehold on the Weatherbys Champion Bumper and, while Clonbanan Lad clearly has quite an engine, he has run only in soft ground. New Year's Eve (5.15) looks all class, and no wonder when you consider his pedigree and supervision.
Queen Mother Champion Chase: Experts' verdict
Chris McGrath (Racing Correspondent): 1 Sizing Europe 2 Finian's Rainbow 3 Big Zeb
James Lawton (Chief Sports Writer): 1 Sizing Europe 2 Finian's Rainbow 3 Big Zeb
James Corrigan (sports writer): 1 Finian's Rainbow 2 Sizing Europe 3 Kauto Stone
Sue Montgomery (racing writer): 1 Sizing Europe 2 Realt Dubh 3 Finian's Rainbow
Hyperion (tipster): 1 Finian's Rainbow 2 Sizing Europe 3 Big Zeb
John Cobb (Associate Editor, Racing Post ): 1 Realt Dubh 2 Sizing Europe 3 Finian's Rainbow
What's in a name?
Bat Masterson (Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle)
Legendary figure of the old American West, sometime gambler, buffalo hunter, gunfighter, US marshal and, in later life, sports editor of the New York Morning Telegraph.
Sizing Europe (Queen Mother Champion Chase)
A company name, one division of his millionaire owner's empire. Used in mining, a sizing machine reduces ore-bearing rock into manageable pieces.
Felix Yonger (Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle)
Phonetically, the neurotic half of The Odd Couple. Felix Unger was played by Jack Lemmon in the 1968 film.