Donn's Articles » Big Zeb v Master Minded

Big Zeb v Master Minded

On this morning last year, the Big Zeb story had a slightly awkward, incomplete feel to it. There was no doubting his talent, but his career was struggling for rhythm. He had won five of the chases that he had contested up to that point, but he had fallen in four of the others, and his attempt to become the first Irish horse since Moscow Flyer to win the Tingle Creek Chase two months earlier had ended in abject failure.

Nothing had gone right at Sandown that day. The ground was that soft holding ground that Big Zeb hates, he didn’t jump a jump, he wasn’t at the top of his game anyway going into the race, and he trailed in a sorry-looking fourth of the five runners, 30 lengths behind the winner Twist Magic. It was the first time in 12 completed races over hurdles and fences that he had finished out of the first two. Colm Murphy kicked himself – he should never have gone.

The plan to run next in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival was aborted. Murphy got Big Zeb home and concentrated on getting him back, treated him for the active ringbone that had developed in his off-fore and planned the rest of his season: Tied Cottage Chase, Champion Chase.

Rewind to 2009. Same plan, Tied Cottage Chase, Champion Chase, only the execution falls some way short of the expectation. Big Zeb falls at the second last in the Tied Cottage Chase when he is just about to challenge Mansony for the lead, and he takes another crashing fall in the Champion Chase. The Big Zeb story could actually have ended there at the top of the hill at the back of the fourth last fence at Cheltenham.

Robert Thornton had asked him to stand off the fourth last. He probably needed to ping the fence if he was to hold his position in the race, just as the pace was increasing. Alas, in the blink of an eye that comes with racing pace at steeplechasing’s sprint distance, Big Zeb decided that he couldn’t make it. He tried to put in another short stride, but the extra stride took him in too close to the fence, he crashed through it and hit the ground hard. Murphy looked on helplessly from the rail beside the grandstand as they erected a screen around Big Zeb at the top of the hill about three quarters of a mile away, and he heaved a sigh of relief a couple of minutes later as the screens came down and the horse got up.

The contrast between 2009 and 2010 could hardly have been more stark. Expectation and wildest-dream-realisation merged, and converged with execution. The Tied Cottage Chase was copybook stuff. The fact that Big Zeb wasn’t even sent off as favourite for the race gives an indication of the magnitude by which the public’s confidence in him had been rocked. Importantly, however, his trainer’s confidence remained rock steady.

Big Zeb flowed in the Tied Cottage, his jumping was exemplary and he beat Golden Silver by a seven-length margin that could have been 27. If that was enough to give the Irish racing public hope for Cheltenham, however, it wasn’t enough to convince those on the far side of the Irish Sea. A 5/1 shot for the Champion Chase before he ran in the Tingle Creek, he was allowed go off at 10/1 on the day, a price that was inflated by the fact that Master Minded was sent off at odds-on. Master Minded finished fourth. Big Zeb won. Emphatically.

It is difficult to understand why Master Minded is favourite in most lists, in front of Big Zeb, for this year’s Champion Chase. They have now met three times. Master Minded won the 2009 Champion Chase, the race in which Big Zeb crashed out, while Big Zeb won the 2010 Champion Chase, leaving Paul Nicholls’s horse 10 lengths behind in fourth place. In the interim, they met in the Kerrygold Champion Chase at Punchestown in April 2009, and the form book says that Master Minded beat Big Zeb by a head. But watch a recording of the race, and you will see that Big Zeb tried to take the last fence home with him as a memento, but for which he would almost certainly have won.

So jumping is a huge part of this game, and jumping frailties have cost Big Zeb in the past. But, touch wood, he is getting better. His bravery at his fences has been honed and molded by his trainer into accuracy and efficiency. Barry Geraghty says he is like Moscow Flyer, in that he is not afraid to take a chance at his fences. Of course, if you take too big a chance, it can end in disaster, but if you are to be a top class two-mile chaser you can’t be too safe, you have to be fast, you need to operate near the cusp of disaster.

It is true that Master Minded has been good this year, but so has Big Zeb. Both remain unbeaten in five collective runs this term. Master Minded looked good in winning the Tingle Creek Chase at Cheltenham last month but, with the possible exception of Somersby, who was expected to come on for the run, the field lacked that top class quality. Petit Robin finished second, and Petit Robin has tried eight times to win a Grade 1 contest without succeeding.

On top of that, the race was set up for a fast time. I’m So Lucky set a fast pace and Petit Robin took it up from him at the fifth last. It was a race that was run in a similar fashion to the manner in which they would run a 1,500-metre race at a Grand Prix meeting in which the objective was to break the world record; two pacemakers employed. Even at that, the time that Master Minded clocked was a half a second slower than the time that Woolcombe Folly clocked in winning the handicap chase run over the same course and distance two hours earlier.

Last Saturday in the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot, Master Minded scraped home by a short head from Somersby. A self-deprecating AP McCoy blamed himself for going on too early on Master Minded, but such a manoeuvre on a tip-top Master Minded would have had them all stone cold by the time they reached the home turn. Somersby is good, but he is not a specialist two-miler.

Big Zeb has been busy beating Golden Silver this season, but Golden Silver is top class. He may not be a Cheltenham horse, so he probably doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves, but he is a triple Grade 1 winner over fences. Colm Murphy says that Big Zeb is better than ever this year, that he has had a clear run with him so far, and that is a scary prospect.

Master Minded is a top class racehorse of course, a top class two-mile chaser, but he may still be dining out on the performance that he put up in beating Voy Por Ustedes by 19 lengths in the 2008 Champion Chase. He is good, but he may not be quite that good any more. He may not be as good as Big Zeb.

© The Sunday Times, 30th January 2011