Big Zeb: Irish two-miler set to take on the 'hottest favourite of the festival'PICTURE: Caroline Norris
Big Zeb set to take up Master Minded challenge
THE shadow of Master Minded was forcing trainers to keep their options open after the entries for the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Ryanair Chase were releasedon Thursday, but at least leading Irish two-miler Big Zeb looks set to take up the challenge.
Bookmakers Coral on Thursday described Master Minded as likely to be "the hottest favourite of the festival" in the Champion Chase and 15 of the 29 entries for that race were also among the 48 possibles for the Ryanair Chase.
Blue Square have opened a market on the Champion Chase without Master Minded, making Nicky Henderson's Petit Robin 9-2 favourite with Big Zeb, winner of the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown last time, 5-1.
Big Zeb's trainer Colm Murphy is no stranger to Cheltenham Festival glory having taken the Supreme Novices' and Champion Hurdle with Brave Inca and looks likely to send his dual Grade 1 winner Big Zeb to battle in the £320,000 2m championship on March 11 rather than the longer alternative a day later.
"At this stage I'm probably favouring the Champion Chase over the Ryanair but nothing is concrete at this stage," said Murphy.
Master Minded, a 19-length winner of the Champion Chase last year, was one of seven horses entered by champion trainer Paul Nicholls and is likely to complete his preparation in next Saturday's Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot, according to his owner Clive Smith.
"The intention is to give him a run in the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot next weekend and then go straight on to Cheltenham," said Smith.
"Cheltenham has again been the aim all this season and he didn't necessarily have to be 100 per cent to win the Tingle Creek.
"It wasn't an outstanding performance but he did what he had to do and beat some sound opposition. He was very well ridden by Tony McCoy and the loose horse didn't help his cause.
William Hill make it a 2-7 chance that the winner will come from Nicholls' stable and 5-1 that he will train the first three home.
Champion Chase without Master Minded
Blue Square: 9-2 Petit Robin, 5 Big Zeb, 6 Well Chief, Twist Magic, 8 Fiepes Shuffle, Or Noir de Somoza, 10 Takeroc, Thyne Again, Tamarinbleu, Briareus, 16 Ashley Brook, 20 Moon Over Miami, Mahogany Blaze.