Cheltenham: Festival champions come under threat
All of a sudden, the big country is a troubled dominion. There was a brazen incursion at Punchestown yesterday, where Big Zeb succumbed to an astonishing blitz of winners for Willie Mullins, and even Big Buck's no longer looks quite so invulnerable.
Nobody, certainly, should be making too many assumptions on behalf of the four champions returning to the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Ladbrokes, in fact, are now offering just 4-1 that none of Big Buck's, Big Zeb, Binocular and Imperial Commander manages to retain his crown — and 125-1 that all four can do so.
Paul Nicholls, it must be said, is dismissive of the notion that he might have sleepless nights over the emergence of Grands Crus, whose stunning performance at Cheltenham on Saturday surely announced him as a legitimate threat to Big Buck's in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
“With the way he runs, it will be nice to have something to aim at,” the champion trainer said breezily.
For Colm Murphy, however, it was difficult to be quite so insouciant after Big Zeb was collared by Golden Silver in the Tied Cottage Chase.
Admittedly everything seemed to be going to plan as the odds-on favourite took command three out, having joined issue with a couple of really aggressive jumps.
It already seemed evident, after all, that Sizing Europe was not going to offer anything like the sort of challenge produced by
Somersby to Master Minded, in a parallel showdown between king and pretender at Ascot the previous weekend. And Golden Silver, the only other feasible danger, had appeared to be fatally lacking in rhythm from an early stage.
But Murphy could not know that Golden Silver was just the first wave of an irresistible tide, all afternoon, for Mullins and Paul Townend.
Riding with a confidence increasingly familiar during the absence of the injured Ruby Walsh, Townend gave Golden Silver time to find his feet and his mount took off between the last two.
Possibly Big Zeb was idling close home, as well. Either way, Golden Silver got up by half a length, the pair seven clear of Sizing Europe.
Big Zeb was eased to 7-2 from 11-4 for his defence of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, with Master Minded now 2-1 from 9-4.
“He probably jumped too well, to get there when he did,” Murphy said.
“Anyway, we learned plenty and he seems to be okay.”
Golden Silver is 8-1 from 14-1,
but Mullins warned that he could yet go for the Ryanair Chase instead. “Maybe we caught Big Zeb on the hop,” he conceded. “He may have just relaxed a bit.”
Ireland's pre-eminent jumps trainer proceeded to saddle another four winners, all but one ridden by Townend — including Gagewell Flyer, who made it three out of three over timber in a Grade Two novice hurdle.
Inevitably, the only threat to emerge after he struck for home came from the stable's other runner, Earlson Gray, making his first start since arriving from France.
“He'll probably go for the Neptune Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham now,” said Mullins of the winner.
Mullins was thwarted for the one and only time in the fifth race, when Kerb Appeal could manage “just” third of 21 in a handicap hurdle, and the sole surprise about Celtic Folklore's subsequent success in the bumper — coasting clear under the trainer's son, Patrick — was his drift to a starting price of 9-2.
The Co Carlow trainer, after all, has long been especially prolific in races of this kind, and it is safe to assume that off-course layers were unimpressed to see their cumulative liabilities extend to 951-1.
“I came here thinking Gagewell Flyer would be my one winner!” Mullins said.
“Paul was fantastic, and the horses seem in great order.”
One thing is guaranteed. With Mourad staking his own claim against Big Buck's, and Hurricane Fly looming into Binocular's field of vision, plenty of other trainers will need the next six weeks to work out as smoothly as yesterday did for Mullins. For uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.