Sizing Europe gainsChampion edge with Zeb off pace
Sizing Europe showed exactly who's 'Champion' with a devastating display at Punchestown yesterday.
The reigning Champion Chase hero completed preparations for the defence of his two-mile crown at Cheltenham next month by emphatically re-establishing his superiority over Big Zeb in the Boylesports Tied Cottage Chase.
Henry de Bromhead's 10-year-old retained favouritism for the Champion Chase ahead of yesterday's Grade Two but there was plenty support for Big Zeb -- the winner when they last touched swords here at the Festival in May -- which was bidding to record a third triumph over his old rival in four chasing starts.
With the ground officially heavy, the perceived wisdom was that Colm Murphy's veteran would be better equipped to handle the conditions.
As it turned out, under the sort of aggressive tactics that served him so well when he conquered Big Zeb at Prestbury Park last year, it was the reigning champion which evened up the score under Andrew Lynch.
"It was a savage performance," a delighted De Bromhead said of Sizing Europe afterwards. "That's not his best ground, but as he has got older he has got stronger. He is just an amazing horse to be involved with."
"Myself and Andrew are delighted. Andrew said he didn't jump like he normally does, but I thought he was brilliant.
"He just popped a few because of the ground and didn't let fly, but it is straight to Cheltenham now.
The rank outsider Imperial Shabra set out to make the early running, but Lynch seized the initiative from the second fence, as Sizing Europe jumped with the exuberance that always seems to define his very best displays.
Although Robbie Power endeavoured to keep close tabs on the eventual winner, Big Zeb never looked comfortable when asked to join his nemesis.
Sensing that his market rival was struggling, Lynch turned the screw from the halfway point, and the race was over as a contest well before the final fence.
Big Zeb did loom up, looking briefly threatening between the final two fences, before Lynch kicked clear and Sizing Europe, which returned the 9/10 market leader, had 15 lengths to spare at the death.
On the back of a similarly commanding victory in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December, this confirmed that he will be the one to beat again come Cheltenham.
"It's only recently that I've had the confidence to let him roll at his own pace like that," De Bromhead explained afterwards, "so I told Andrew just go out and let him enjoy himself.
"It is great for Irish racing to have two champions running here and this was a stepping stone for both. It's unusual for there to be that much of a gap between him and Big Zeb -- they are usually so close -- and I'm sure they'll be a lot closer again at Cheltenham."
Murphy and Power subsequently reported that Big Zeb was never happy on the deep going. "Henry's horse went a proper gallop," Murphy said, "so all credit to him. We'd be hoping we'll be better on better ground in a month's time.
"Robbie said he was beat before the first fence. It was always a worry running on that ground, it was proper testing. Cheltenham is still the plan."
The sponsors subsequently doubled Big Zeb's odds to 8/1 to turn the tables at Cheltenham, as Sizing Europe was predictably cut to 5/4 from 9/4.
Paddy Power slashed Trifolium's odds from 50/1 to 16/1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle after Charles Byrnes' Gigginstown Stud-owned gelding justified favouritism in the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle under Davy Russell.
Beaten by So Young at Navan last time, Trifolium thrived on the return to novice company, easing clear after the third-last to collect by all of nine lengths from Simenon. "He'd prefer better ground," Byrnes reported, "but so would most horses. He settled better today than the last day; when he learns to settle properly, he could be very good. We'll probably go for the Supreme Novices' with him now."
Willie Mullins' Scotsirish will tackle the cross-country race in the Cotswolds following his relatively straightforward two-length defeat of Garde Champetre under the trainer's son Patrick in the PP Hogan Memorial equivalent here.
That was Mullins' second win of the day, though the first was far less clear-cut.
Ruby Walsh made all of the running on the 1/5 shot Allure Of Illusion in the maiden hurdle, but the partnership had only just enough in the tank at the line to ensure a share of the winner's purse with Paul Nolan's fast-finishing King Vuvuzela.
Walsh was again involved in the thick of the finish to the Grand National trial on Mullins' Up The Beat. However, Maurice Phelan's Portrait King, under a confident steer from Davy Condon, always looked like keeping the eventual runner-up at bay.
"He was unlucky the last day," the Athy-based Phelan said of his recent Fairyhouse runner-up, "so he deserved that. He could go for the Eider Chase at Newcastle next."
Robbie Moran rode his first winner since April on John Berry's Cootamundra in the Pertemps qualifier, while an exciting climax to the bumper saw Pat Fahy's debutant Morning Assembly foil the odds-on Mister Hotelier.
The 7/1 shot, ridden by the trainer's son Conor, produced a late turn of foot to prevail by a length and a half.