Murphy's star can retain Champion Chase crown
Big Zeb is the first of the three remaining horses defending an all-aged Festival crown going into action this afternoon.
The star performer of Colm Murphy's Co Wexford yard is attempting to repeat last year's authoritative Queen Mother Champion Chase victory.
On that occasion, Barry Geraghty's mount left previous dual scorer Master Minded in his wake to make handsome amends for both their exit from the 2009 showdown and a subsequent narrow defeat by the Paul Nicholls ace in their Punchestown Festival rematch.
At his best on a decent surface, Big Zeb is fully expected to reverse the most recent Punchestown placings today with another old adversary, Golden Silver, which backs up a concerted Irish challenge including former Cotswold victors Sizing Europe and Captain Cee Bee.
Master Minded's up-and-coming stable companion Woolcombe Folly gives British champion trainer Nicholls a useful second string to his bow here as this gelding clocked a fast time around Cheltenham when readily defying a hefty burden in respectable handicap company.
The other prime domestic hope is Henrietta Knight's often-placed Somersby, which put hotpot Master Minded to the pin of his collar to hold on by a whisker in a desperate finish to Ascot's Victor Chandler Chase in January that might well have left a legacy.
This is traditionally quite a spectacle, with the runners taking off at breakneck speed and maintaining that tempo throughout, meaning there's no room for jumping errors. Usually the better horses flourish in such a scenario, and it won't be surprising if Big Zeb emerges on top again.
This is a session boasting a liberal sprinkling of fancied Irish contenders in all races except, possibly, the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. Hopes are high for another lucrative win in the Neptune Novices Hurdle with either of our leading fancies Oscars Well and So Young.
A revelation this winter on the back of successive Grade One victories, Oscars Well saved his best performance to date for last month's Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown in which there was a proper end-to-end gallop that brought out the best in Jessica Harrington's charge.
In contrast, French import So Young, which has translated his outstanding Gallic bumper form to the Irish jumping arena, lacks the big-race experience of Oscars Well -- though you could not fault his runaway successes against inferior rivals at Leopardstown and Punchestown.
Bobs Worth, which mastered another Irish-bred Rock On Ruby in what appeared a fair trial here at the end of January, is a surprise absentee, with his jockey Barry Geraghty switching to Minella Class, but it will surely require a top-class effort to deny Oscars Well.
The potent combination of Harrington and jockey Robert Power field another proven Leopardstown performer Bostons Angel with prospects of reaching the frame at decent odds in the RSA Chase, for which Time For Rupert has been all the rage for some months now.
Restricted to two outings over the larger obstacles this season, Time For Rupert's main claim to fame was his close second to Big Buck's in last year's World Hurdle and, if he runs up to that standard today as a chaser, he should collect in the hands of Kildare's Will Kennedy.
A good showing in the opening National Hunt Chase by Gordon Elliott's Chicago Grey, which was runner-up to Time For Rupert at this track over three months ago, is anticipated, even if compatriots Alfa Beat and Some Target won't be readily brushed aside.
1.30: Chicago Grey
2.05: Oscars Well
2.40: Time For Rupert
3.20: Big Zeb (nap)
4.0: For Non Stop (e/w)
4.40: Tenor Nivernais
5.15: Knight Pass