All of a sudden, the big country is a troubled dominion. There was a brazen incursion at Punchestown yesterday where Big Zeb succumbed to an astonishing blitz of winners for Willie Mullins, and even Big Buck's no longer looks quite so invulnerable. Nobody, certainly, should be making too many assumptions on behalf of the four champions returning to the Cheltenham Festival in March. Ladbrokes are now offering just 4-1 that none of Big Buck's, Big Zeb, Binocular and Imperial Commander manages to retain his crown; and 125-1 that all four can do so.
Paul Nicholls is dismissive of the notion that he might have sleepless nights over the emergence of Grands Crus, whose stunning performance at Cheltenham on Saturday announced him as a legitimate threat to Big Buck's in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. "With the way he runs, it will be nice to have something to aim at," the champion trainer said breezily.
For Colm Murphy, however, it was difficult to be quite so insouciant after Big Zeb was collared by Golden Silver in the Tied Cottage Chase. Everything seemed to be going to plan as the odds-on favourite took command three out, having joined issue with a couple of really aggressive jumps. It already seemed evident that Sizing Europe was not going to offer anything like the sort of challenge produced by Somersby to Master Minded in a parallel showdown between king and pretender at Ascot the previous weekend. And Golden Silver, the only other feasible danger, had appeared to be lacking in rhythm from an early stage.
But Murphy could not know that Golden Silver was just the first wave of an irresistible tide, all afternoon, for Mullins and Paul Townend. Riding with a confidence increasingly familiar during the absence of Ruby Walsh, Townend gave Golden Silver time to find his feet and, though making little impression leaving the back straight, his mount took off between the last two. Possibly Big Zeb was idling close home as well; either way, Golden Silver got up by half a length.
Big Zeb was eased to 7-2 from 11-4 by William Hill for his defence of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, with Master Minded now 2-1 from 9-4. "He probably jumped too well, to get there when he did," Murphy said. "There was always going to be a day like that, and today was the day. Anyway, we learned plenty and he seems to be OK afterwards."
Golden Silver is 8-1 from 14-1, but Mullins warned that he could go for the Ryanair Chase instead. "Maybe we caught Big Zeb on the hop," he conceded. "He may have just relaxed a bit, and it worked for us."
Ireland's pre-eminent jumps trainer proceeded to saddle another four winners – all but one ridden by Townend – including Gagewell Flyer, who made it three out of three over timber in a Grade Two novice hurdle. The only threat after he struck for home came from the stable's other runner, Earlson Gray, on his first start since arriving from France. "I brought Gagewell Flyer back to two miles to get more experience of a fast-run race into him, and to get him jumping faster," Mullins said. "He'll probably go for the Neptune Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham."
Mullins was thwarted for the one and only time in the fifth race, when Kerb Appeal could manage "just" third of 21 in a handicap hurdle, and the sole surprise about Celtic Folklore's subsequent success in the bumper – coasting clear under the trainer's son, Patrick – was his drift to a starting price of 9-2. The Co Carlow trainer, after all, has long been especially prolific in races of this kind, and it is safe to assume that off-course layers were unimpressed to see their cumulative liabilities extend to 951-1.
"I came here thinking Gagewell Flyer would be my one winner," Mullins said. "Paul was fantastic, and the horses seem in great order."
One thing is guaranteed. With Mourad staking his own claim against Big Buck's, and Hurricane Fly looming into Binocular's field of vision, plenty of other trainers will need the next six weeks to work out as smoothly as yesterday did for Mullins. For uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
Zaru (4.30 Ayr)
Has shown promise in both starts. Well fancied when third here and then going sweetly for a long way before fading after an absence at Catterick.
Blackpool Billy (3.25 Ayr)
Looks ahead of this lot. He cruised through his first handicap over fences at Catterick, unable to retrieve ground lost after a blunder two out.
One to watch
Thunderstorm (Philip Hobbs) was well beaten behind a stablemate at Ffos Las but again showed the ability he had exhibited in bumpers and may do better in handicaps over farther.