Big Zeb worth a chance
Graham Wylie's eight-year-old impressed with his jumping when readily taking a Sandown handicap on just his second start for Nicholls...
Timeform's Adam Brookes believes he's found the value bet in the second-day feature of this year's Cheltenham Festival, the Grade 1 Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Sizing Europe's 15-length victory over Big Zeb in the recent Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown has seen the reigning champion chaser establish a 7 lb edge over his rival on Timeform ratings, the 172 figure he achieved matching his winning effort in last year's main event.
It's not surprising that trainer Henry de Bromhead has been quoted as saying how the horse is like a child to him. Sizing Europe's record since being sent chasing aged seven is quite staggering (yet to finish out of the places, winning four Grade 1s, three Grade 2s and a Grade 3) and, judged on his latest authoritative victory, the trainer can look forward to a few more big days yet. A seemingly bombproof sound jumper/strong traveller, Sizing Europe is undoubtedly the one they will all have to beat at Cheltenham in five weeks' time.
Another modern day Irish legend, Moscow Flyer, was the last 11-year-old to win the race when regaining his crown in 2005, and Big Zeb aims to achieve an identical feat this time round having found Sizing Europe five lengths too good last year.
Big Zeb finished runner-up (to Golden Silver) in the Tied Cottage a year ago too, the first of two verdicts he has over Sizing Europe (the current head-to-head score is 2-2) and, although he ran to a figure some 12 lb below his Timeform master rating in the race this time round, he was travelling as well as the winner for most of the race and might just have got bogged down in the ground (the second time he hasn't been at his best on heavy going).
With a Master Minded-shaped hole in this year's Champion Chase, and a field size that will probably fail to match the 10 runners averaged since 2000, stiffest opposition to the 'Big Two' is highly likely to come from Finian's Rainbow. Last year's Arkle runner-up produced a tremendous turn of foot when getting back up to beat Wishfull Thinking and Oiseau de Nuit having made a bad mistake four out on his seasonal return at Kempton, and he showed himself a high-class chaser when finding only Somersby too good in the VC Chase at Ascot just under a month later.
However, while admitting that similar comments could have been applied to Sizing Europe before his Champion Chase win, he remains with a bit to prove at the highest level, and there's also the possibility that he'll struggle to get his own way in front with Sizing Europe in opposition.
Somersby is currently second-in on Timeform ratings, but he also holds the same status for the Ryanair and, with him being having been beaten at the shorter option at all of the last three Cheltenham Festivals, that race should be his target. The Ryanair could also be the preferred destination for Gauvain, I'msingingtheblues, the Irish pair Realt Dubh and Blazing Tempo, and Paul Nicholls' Kauto Stone.
With that in mind, and the strong likelihood that both Peddlers Cross and Al Ferof will go for the Arkle, the champion trainer could well have a live contender for the Champion Chase frame in the shape of Hold Fast. Graham Wylie's eight-year-old impressed with his jumping when readily taking a Sandown handicap on just his second start for Nicholls and, though he has a fair bit to find with the form principals, he's already rated higher than the David Pipe duo I'm So Lucky and Dan Breen, and he has the potential to leapfrog the likes of stablemate Ghizao (lost his way), Forpadydeplaster (hasn't won since 2009 Arkle), Wishfull Thinking (seemingly has breathing issues), and Oiseau de Nuit (has been let down by jumping) as the most interesting outsider.
While Sizing Europe clearly deserves his place as strong favourite in his bid to emulate the likes of Badsworth Boy, Pearlyman, Barnbrook Again and, more recently, Master Minded by winning the Champion Chase for two years in succession, it is worth remembering that he was somewhat advantaged by a positive ride last year and there's the overriding feeling that the market's reaction to the Tied Cottage was excessive. It would be no surprise were Big Zeb to finish much closer to him next month and, owing to the current disparity in prices, it's Colm Murphy's runner who makes most appeal as an ante-post back proposition, with him likely to be trading at a shorter price come March 14. With dangers thin on the ground, it may even pay to also back Big Zeb for a place nearer the time, when anything over 1.7 would be considered value.
Back Big Zeb @ 7.6 in the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival