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Big Zeb facing 'Golden' test in Cheltenham trial

Big Zeb will have a maximum of four opponents, including stable companion Don't Be Bitin, when attempting to book his Cheltenham Festival ticket in the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown on Sunday.

Colm Murphy's stable star, which enjoyed a short break after his disappointing fourth to Twist Magic in Sandown's Tingle Creek Chase, is being prepared for another crack at the Queen Mother Champion Chase and this is effectively his trial for Cheltenham.

A casualty in that contest 12 months ago, Big Zeb went very close to dethroning Master Minded in the Punchestown equivalent last April and Sunday's Grade Two event there has been his target for several weeks.

Murphy avoided the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown after Christmas - when Golden Silver beat Tranquil Sea - to give his charge additional time to recover fully from Sandown. Now it looks as though Golden Silver, rather than last year's winner Mansony or Conna Castle, will pose the main threat to Big Zeb this weekend, even if the Willie Mullins runner is unproven at the Kildare track.

The legendary Moscow Flyer, which took the Tied Cottage Chase over the minimum trip in 2003 and 2005, is commemorated by the Grade Two novice hurdle on Sunday's card that went to Mikael D'Haguenet a year ago.

That classy French import's champion trainer Mullins could rely this time on progressive mare Morning Supreme and she may be taken on by Noel Meade's Hollo Ladies, which would also be on a hat-trick mission.

Another smart sort Saludos and Some Present, which failed to sparkle at Leopardstown last time out, are other notable entrants, along with Universal Truth, which landed the bumper 12 months back for Dermot Weld.

The Curragh trainer has his small, select team of winter performers in tremendous heart at the moment and this was reflected yesterday in fresh support for Leopardstown scorers Rite Of Passage and Elegant Concorde.

Both Paddy Power and William Hill reported an amount of pre-Cheltenham money for Sunday's debut hurdles victor Rite Of Passage, which is the new Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle favourite with each firm.


Powers go 6/1 from 8/1 for the longer of the two Grade One novice contests and Hills cut the flat-bred gelding three points to 7/1, a point shorter now than original favourite Quel Esprit, which was surprisingly beaten on Sunday.

Elegant Concorde, which romped home there after Christmas, is in to 9/1 market leader with Powers for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper and on the 10/1 mark with Hills, who have Hidden Universe alongside after his runaway debut victory on Saturday for Weld.

Paddy Power clients likewise showed interest yesterday in the Willie Mullins-trained Enterprise Park for the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle, resulting in this fluent Gowran Park and Limerick winner being cut two points to 10/1.

Meanwhile, Henry de Bromhead rates Sunday's Irish Arkle winner An Cathaoir Mor "highly unlikely" to run in the Blue Square Handicap Chase at Doncaster on Saturday week.

The seven-year-old had only broken his maiden tag over fences seven days earlier at Fairyhouse, but benefited from a peach of a ride from David Casey.

However, the Turtle Island gelding has a distinct preference for soft ground and is also at the mercy of the English handicapper.

"He's great after Sunday, he's in good form," said De Bromhead. "He was rated 133 before Sunday, which is fair enough, but it all depends what the English handicapper does to him.

"After his win on Sunday he has just been rated 147 in Ireland. I think it would be unlikely, but I don't know, if the weights did favour him greatly, we may consider it, but he'd also need soft ground. The best way to describe it at the moment would be 'highly unlikely'."

Victor Chandler currently have An Cathaoir Mor as their 6/1 favourite ahead of the Paul Nicholls pair of I'msingingtheblues -- last year's winner -- and Free World.

"If he came out of his race at Leopardstown in good heart he could prove a handicap snip at Doncaster, although Alan King's Oh Crick stayed on well in the Victor Chandler Chase to take third spot and could be an interesting runner," said Victor Chandler's Neal Wilkins.

Blue Square Handicap Chase, Victor Chandler bet: 6/1 An Cathaoir Mor, 7/1 I'msingingtheblues, 8/1 Free World, Oh Crick, Kalahari King, 10/1 Cornas, Nomecheki, Oiseau De Nuit, 12/1 bar.

Irish Independent