Asking for owner Pat Redmond at his Ashdown Park Hotel is met with the response one expects in racing-mad Ireland. “Yes, I know Big Zeb,” says the receptionist.
“We’ve all won some money off him here.”
The Ashdown Park is one of several smart establishments in Gorey owned by Redmond and his brother, Tom, who made their fortune from construction and property and have a similar eye for an equine bargain.
Just as land and buildings are prey to the downturns in the market, when Redmond spent €34,000 on a son of Oscar, in 2004, he was acquiring an asset with solid foundations, but uncertain development potential.
Big Zeb, who is trained locally by Colm Murphy and carries the purple-and-yellow colours of Wexford, trod a rocky path to the ultimate prize for a two-miler, but got there by winning the 2010 Sportingbet Queen Mother Champion Chase.
“I think it took a few days to be approved by the management,” says Redmond.
“We just bought him as a three-year-old, up at Goffs. We looked at a good few horses and it got to the end of the evening, and finally we got hold of a lovely-looking, unbroken three-year-old.
“He was never actually able to win a bumper, but Colm always thought he could be exceptional. It was just a question of getting it all out of him.”
That unbroken three-year-old did win his fourth start, a maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse, in Mar 2007, before finishing second to a horse who would become a regular sparring partner, Sizing Europe, at the Punchestown Festival.
Big Zeb went chasing the following winter, but got no further than the first fence on his debut in the Leopardstown Christmas meeting.
He ended up a grade one winner at Punchestown, but jumping errors punctuated the first couple of seasons, leading to another fall in the 2009 Queen Mother.
However, the turnaround started when he ran the Cheltenham hero, Master Minded, to a head at Punchestown a few weeks later, with the defining moment the following spring at Cheltenham, with a six-length destruction of Forpadydeplasterer
“He has really been a dream horse to own and has given us some wonderful days,” Redmond says. “He’s the first ever racehorse I have bought. I have bought some more since and I keep my fingers crossed, but they don’t look like being more Big Zebs.
“Early in his career, he had a few boo-boos, but his jumping has gradually become a lot better. It’s like everything. Horses eventually cop on and start doing things right.”
Although strapping himself, with two white spots on his head, Big Zeb’s name is Redmond’s. This is not some ostentatious gesture by his owner, who says: “When I was younger, I used to play in the local GAA, hurling and football, it (Big Zeb) was a name I was given.
“I used to play a little myself, just locally in Craanford. I had my days and moments, but it was just a good old craic.
“I suppose it was because I was a big lump of a lad. Anyway, the lad who broke him in was a local fella and he put the name on him. It just stuck.”
A second Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase followed in December of that year, but he could not lay up with Sizing Europe, by now the rising star in the division, and was beaten by five lengths in the corresponding Queen Mother.
“I know he lost the Champion Chase last year, but I don’t think he was at his best,” Redmond says.
“You could say it was, maybe, an off-day, but it might be that Cheltenham had watered the ground and it was a little on the soft side.
“I think he’s at his best on good ground. He didn’t travel as well as he can and he then went to Punchestown and beat Sizing Europe.”
The pendulum again swung back to Sizing Europe, when 15 lengths split the pair in a virtual match race for the Tied Cottage, at Punchestown, and there are questions to answer once again.
“The ground was very heavy and we didn’t want him to have a really tough race,” Redmond says.
“He’ll be a better horse at Cheltenham and has as good a chance as any. Sizing Europe is the one to beat, but we’ll be there or thereabouts.”
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