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Last Updated: 15/03/11 10:07pm
Big Zeb: In peak condition to defend his crown at Cheltenham
Colm Murphy believes Big Zeb is in peak condition ahead of his defence of the sportingbet.com Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham tomorrow.
The 10-year-old's jumping came in for criticism in some quarters prior to last year's race, but he was foot-perfect under Barry Geraghty as he dethroned dual winner Master Minded with an awesome display.
After defeating Golden Silver twice earlier this season, the latter came out on top at Punchestown last time, although Murphy is confident his charge is better than he showed that day.
"Getting beat by Golden Silver the last day was a combination of a few things and he'd missed his work before because of the frost, so he may have been a bit short," said Murphy.
"It's like everything, if you could do it again you'd do it different. We've been delighted with him and it's been all systems go since.
"We're very hopeful. We've had a good run with him this year and everything has gone pretty much to plan and his preparation has gone very well.
"He's jumped well the last two years and hopefully he will the next day. He's more professional and seems to have grown up a bit."
Since his disappointing display when only fourth last year, Master Minded has appeared a different horse following a breathing operation in the summer.
After victories at Ascot and in the rearranged Tingle Creek at Cheltenham, he was made to pull out all the stops by Somersby at Ascot last time, but his trainer Paul Nicholls expects better on this better surface.
"I've been confident all along Master Minded has a chance," said the champion trainer.
"He's a dual Champion Chase winner. He was struggling with his breathing last season, we sorted that out and he has won three out of three this season.
"He was very impressive on goodish ground at Ascot, then on goodish ground in the Tingle Creek.
"He then just struggled on very soft ground at Ascot, when he wasn't at his very best. He's a different animal now he can breathe and he's obviously got a great chance."
Nicholls has an interesting second string in Woolcombe Folly, a winner of handicaps at Ascot and Cheltenham this season.
"I've been staggered with what Woolcombe Folly has done this season, the time he won in last time was as quick as Master Minded in the Tingle Creek," he said.
"The one thing is he goes well fresh and drying ground will help. He's been unbelievable."
Master Minded's owner Clive Smith is also confident his charge will show his true colours this week.
"We're very happy with him. The real difference is that last year he had a cracked rib and had a month off and went on the horse-walker and all that," said Smith.
"When he came back in January last year he just wasn't right for Cheltenham. This year he hasn't missed a day's training. He's in much better shape and is right back to his best."
Ruby Walsh will be the man in the saddle and he feels Master Minded may not even need to perform right up to his very best to record a third Champion Chase victory.
"I've won two Champion Chases on him and his first one was probably the best performance from any horse I've ever ridden," reasoned Walsh.
"As a five-year-old it was an incredible performance. He's a wonderful jumper, he has unbelievable scope but also has the ability to get close to the boards.
"It doesn't matter how fast they go as he has a lot of pace and he stays very well. He's a real good horse.
"We could probably do with a drop of rain for him. He handles soft ground better than he does good ground but he's won a Champion Chase on good ground.
"He only just scraped home at Ascot but Master Minded, on his day, is an incredible horse and if he turns up in that form he'll take a lot of beating.
"He might never repeat that first Champion Chase performance but something about 7lb below will probably be good enough," he told Racing UK.
The Willie Mullins-trained Golden Silver is ready to reoppose Big Zeb but the champion trainer admits his two disappointing previous efforts at Cheltenham temper enthusiasm.
"He has run at the Festival twice before. The first year he didn't travel well and last year I think we might not have used the right tactics," said Mullins.
"His Cheltenham form is not good but I'm just hoping this year things might be different. Paul (Townend) and him seem to have got on really well and I think the way the race will be run will suit the horse and the way Paul rides him.
"The ground would be a bit of a question mark because he's shown how good he is in testing conditions.
"His form is good, but there's some negatives I think."
Last year's Arkle hero Sizing Europe returns to the scene of his finest hour.
The nine-year-old was trained as a stayer early in the season but is now back at the minimum distance and trainer Henry de Bromhead is hoping for the best.
He said: "I hope that the return to two miles around Cheltenham will suit him.
"He started the season racing over further, but he probably just had too much time to think about the fences and we think that he is a better horse when he is jumping at speed.
"You would imagine that if he reproduced the level of form that he showed at the Festival last year, then he would have a serious chance. He is in great form."
Eddie Harty's Captain Cee Bee disappointed when favourite for the Arkle and still needs to prove he is up to competing at the highest level having been well beaten by Big Zeb and Golden Silver last time.
"He is in good form at the moment and I am very happy with him," said Harty.
"The ground was very heavy when he ran in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase and it was the first time that he was coming up against the top two-milers.
"We had also been held up by the weather, so nothing was really ideal that day and it's best to excuse him that run.
"If he improves as he normally does between winter and spring, then he is going to be competitive and that is all you can ask for at the Festival."
His big-race jockey, Tony McCoy, added: "He's got to have a chance and he's definitely got the talent.
"Hopefully the ground stays the way it is. He's got a bit of ground to make up on the likes of Big Zeb but it's an open enough race.
"Big Zeb and Master Minded set the standard, so they'll be the ones to beat."
Nicky Henderson is represented by each-way hopes French Opera and Mad Max, but he does not expect either to trouble Master Minded if he is at his best.
"When Master Minded is at his best, he is the best," said the Seven Barrows handler.
"French Opera keeps sneaking under the radar and he now has to run in this on his rating. He won a soft Game Spirit but he's in this echelon and has got to take his chance.
"Mad Max's wind has been well-documented and he has been tubed. He's had it in for a month and he seems really well.
"He's a very talented horse and probably could have been second in last year's Arkle, but I can't see even that being quite good enough."
Somersby got within a short head of Master Minded at Ascot and takes his chance, even though his trainer Henrietta Knight feels he may be run off his feet in the early stages.
"I've declared him for the Ryanair Chase (on Thursday) as well as you never know what might happen. He could get carried out at the first fence or something," said Knight.
"He's going for the Champion Chase as it was all to do with the owner and personal reasons. She's not very well and she can go on Wednesday."The pace will be stronger in this race and that might not suit him. For that reason he may have been better off in the Ryanair, but I haven't got any choice. He's very well and if he can keep up early on he'll stay on.
"He doesn't mind what ground it is but if it was soft it would slow the others down a bit. I think they'll go quick and wing along a bit."