Vintage display does trick for Big Zeb
On the eve of his 11th birthday, Big Zeb produced a turn of foot befitting a horse half his age to record a hat-trick of victories in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown yesterday.
Last year's Champion Chase hero hasn't looked back since forfeiting his crown to Sizing Europe in March, immediately atoning for that reversal at Punchestown in May. He displayed all his old panache when partnered by Robbie Power for a first time on his return at Navan, and this was arguably an even more polished success.
Having tracked the leaders early on, Power got into the driving position as AP McCoy tried to stretch the field on Noble Prince turning for home. Despite his advancing years, Big Zeb's response was immediate and in the affirmative, as he quickened by McCoy's mount to confirm their Navan placings by a decisive length and a quarter.
A sixth Grade One victory of Big Zeb's brilliant career, the win was an incredible 20th triumph at the highest level for his Wexford handler Colm Murphy. It also sets up a mouth-watering pre-Cheltenham clash between the last two winners of the Queen Mother Champion Chase in the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown in February.
"He just looks a better horse this season," a beaming Murphy reported of the 8/11 favourite. "It was always going to develop into a sprint from the second-last and luckily enough he met the last two spot on. He will go for the Tied Cottage next, and we'll see how we go from there. He deserves another crack at the Champion Chase."
Boylesports trimmed Big Zeb a point to 5/1 to regain his crown in March. After Paul Nolan confirmed that the Ryanair Chase would be Noble Prince's next target, the firm offered a standout 7/1 about him for that, as last year's Jewson hero was slashed to 4/1 favouritism with various firms for the longer event.
Forpadydeplasterer took third, but Willie Mullins' Golden Silver, successful here in 2009 and conqueror of both Big Zeb and Sizing Europe in last year's Tied Cottage, suffered a fatal injury when he crashed out under Paul Townend at the fifth fence.
The champion jockey was subsequently taken for X-rays on his shoulder, and his misery was compounded when Cash And Go (11/2) took the Future Champions Novice Hurdle in his absence. Andrew Lynch stood in on the Edward O'Grady-trained four-year-old, which is now unbeaten in three over hurdles.
Sous Les Cieux was sent off the 4/9 market leader here for Mullins on the back of his impressive Royal Bond win, but refused to settle in front for Ruby Walsh before eventually finishing third. Cash And Go, ridden to lead on the run to the last, subsequently looked vulnerable to the stronger-travelling Dylan Ross, but found more under pressure to provide Lynch with his fifth Grade One of the campaign.
"It's not a big surprise as we were hopeful beforehand," O'Grady said afterwards. "We'll have one run in between now and Cheltenham, where I'd be leaning towards the Supreme Novices' Hurdle with him."
O'Grady and AP McCoy had earlier teamed up to deny another Mullins-trained hotpot when the JP McManus-owned The Way We Were (9/2) prevailed over Aupcharlie in the maiden hurdle, while Mullins' difficult day continued in the Paddy Power Chase. On His Own was backed into an SP of 7/2 on its first start for the champion trainer in the €106,800 handicap, but was a spent force when brought down two-out.
Cross Appeal (7/1) landed the bounty for Noel Meade and Paul Carberry. Third behind Groody Hill in the Troytown after a final-fence blunder scuppered his chance, the five-year-old novice did just enough to repel Treacle by three parts of a length, with Groody Hill another half-length behind.
"I was annoyed when the handicapper put him up four pounds for his run in the Troytown," Meade quipped afterwards, "but he wouldn't have got in here today if he hadn't! He'll probably have a break now; the Irish Grand National is something we'll consider for him later on in the season."
Mullins ended the day on more familiar territory when Ballycasey obliged for his son Patrick in the bumper. Returned at 5/1, the Presenting gelding had been unusually easy to back for a debutant from the Closutton outfit.