Zeb leads Murphy double
Colm Murphy took the training plaudits on the first day of the Punchestown Festival yesterday, with Big Zeb and Quito De La Roque providing the Co Wexford handler with a memorable big-race double.
While Quito De La Roque confirmed his growing reputation courtesy of a debut Grade One triumph in the Growise Champion Novice Chase, old favourite Big Zeb gained revenge on his Cheltenham conqueror Sizing Europe in a thrilling finish to the Boylesports.com Champion Chase.
The reigning champion chaser, so authoritative at Prestbury Park in March, was heavily backed into 11/8 favouritism to confirm superiority over Murphy's 10-year-old in the two-mile Grade One. However, it was last year's Cheltenham hero Big Zeb that prevailed this time, despite making a bad mistake four-out and rider Barry Geraghty losing his whip 100 yards from the line.
Having suffered an agonising head defeat to Master Minded in 2009, Big Zeb, which returned at odds of 5/2, was securing the €86,800 pot at the second time of asking. Speaking after watching Big Zeb repel the renewed challenge of Sizing Europe by a diminishing three parts of a length, Murphy paid tribute to his charge's courage.
"That was fantastic," he said. "I'm delighted for everyone at home as he has had his fair share of little problems. To come here after Cheltenham was a big ask and he was all guts today -- they were slogging it out from a long way out."
Sizing Europe made much of the running after stable-mate Changing Course proved unable to take the field along beyond the fourth fence, but looked vulnerable once Geraghty's partner regained composure following that sole blunder. Big Zeb joined the Timmy Murphy-ridden Sizing Europe at the second-last, and did just enough to hold Henry de Bromhead's nine-year-old from the final fence.
A second triumph in the race for Barry Geraghty following a 2004 win on Moscow Flyer, Big Zeb earned a quote of 7/1 from the race sponsors to regain his Cheltenham crown in 2012, while Sizing Europe still heads that market at a best priced 5/1.
Murphy may also now have a Gold Cup prospect on his hands, with Quito De La Roque a general 16/1 shot for next year's showpiece following his 14-length romp over last week's Irish Grand National runner-up Western Charmer.
The Gigginstown Stud-owned gelding, whose only defeat over fences came when he finished second to subsequent RSA Chase winner Bostons Angel at Leopardstown in December, was winning for a fourth time in a row, having just held on at Aintree last month.
Left in front when Ruby Walsh parted company with the error-prone favourite Quel Esprit at the 11th fence, Quito De La Roque's win cancelled out jockeys' championship leader Paul Townend's earlier handicap hurdle success on Johnny McCeeney for the chasing Davy Russell. As a result, Townend, who suffered a heavy fall from Mr Thriller in the novice chase, retains a lead of five over Russell.
"We won't name races for next season," Murphy said of his impressive winner, "but he would have to improve 20lbs to be a Gold Cup horse. We have some nice staying chases here and hopefully his name might be on some of those."
Earlier, Shot From The Hip returned to his best to record a facile nine-length victory over Hidden Universe in the Evening Herald Novice Hurdle, in the process completing a quick double for JP McManus following Outlaw Pete's win under JT McNamara in an incident-packed banks race.
Edward O'Grady's seven-year-old created a big impression when getting off the mark at Leopardstown in December, but suffered a second successive defeat when odds-on at Gowran Park recently.
"We've always had a high opinion of the horse," O'Grady revealed afterwards of the Tony McCoy-ridden winner. "He has been a bit inconsistent in the past but I don't think it's all been down to the horse and he may just have picked up a few bugs. He might go chasing next season -- he does have the scope to jump fences."
The meeting was run on ground that was officially described as good, good to yielding in places, and jockeys were unanimous in their praise of the watering that had been done in advance. Despite the continued sunshine, though, attendance fell by 3pc on last year's figure to 13,721.