SOMETIMES the difference between what sporting participants experience and what spectators witness, can vary wildly. So it was at Punchestown yesterday when Master Minded – the so-called invincible two miler – was nearly beaten by a horse which came so close to falling at the last in the Kerrygold Champion Chase.
To some, especially when considering that the vanquished Big Zeb had fallen in both of his last two outings before rooting the last here yesterday, stumbling badly, before being beaten by just a head at the line, the hard facts about the horse would suggest he has difficulty with fences.
Anyone who watched the race from the sidelines was left with the understandable conclusion that the last fence blunder cost him the race. But his jockey, Barry Geraghty, left many mystified when he said he felt the mistake cost the horse dearly, but did not mean he was a bad jumper.
In the face of questions as to whether his horse was a “dodgy jumper” or not, Big Zeb’s pilot was a little bit miffed, which might be considered a bit strange given the known evidence – that the horse had fallen here at Punchestown in February before doing so again at Cheltenham and very nearly did so again yesterday.
Geraghty rationalised his opinion on the basis that he would have won had it not been for the mistake at the last.
“I was very long at it and I had to commit, but he just got a bit low and pitched. I went from being upsides to being two lengths down and then only got beaten a head, so it was a great run. We should have beaten him today and we will beat him again.
“He fell here in February when he tipped up at the second last and what happened in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham was simply a Cheltenham fall, so I don’t think he’s a dodgy jumper. I think he’s a very good horse and one of these days he’ll beat the best.”
Sure it is Geraghty’s duty as a jockey to provide the trainer and the connections with some good news, especially when the hard facts might appear to contradict his point of view, but for the punters who backed Big Zeb to beat Master Minded, that was of scant consolation.
However, there was also a widespread feeling among the punting populace at Punchestown that Paul Nicholls was being a touch self-delusional after Master Minded was so nearly pipped.
As the winner of two Champion Chase titles at Cheltenham in the last two years, the horse was the 1/4 favourite to beat what was largely considered to be a moderate field of Irish challengers. In the heel of the hunt, spectators were left wondering how Big Zeb nearly provided a truly shocking turnover.
There were those that said Master Minded’s victory at Cheltenham last month was only a pale shadow of the masterful performance he had put in to win the Champion Chase there 12 months previously and that the horse was thus a devalued currency and only waiting to get turned over.
Nicholls’ assertion after the race that Master Minded ‘idled’ throughout a race in which he led most of the way, was regarded as nothing short of preposterous, given the horse’s record. But, in some ways, you had to accept the trainer’s opinion at face value.
Master Minded, he maintained, has been on the go since last July and from now on would have a pacemaker to ensure he has the sort of pace he requires.
Nicholls did concede that Big Zeb had “run a blinder” and he felt that if the Wexford-trained horse had jumped, he’d “have made a race of it.”
Somewhat understandably, Big Zeb’s handler, Colm Murphy, reckoned his horse had made a race of it.
“It’s a pity to get so close and not quite get there and if he’d jumped the last it may have been a different story, but our fella is on the way up and is inexperienced. But we definitely have something to look forward to next year,” he said.
For Ruby Walsh, Master Minded’s win was the second part of a hoped-for treble. He had won earlier on Willie Mullins’ Champion Hurdle hope for next year Hurricane Fly and was also expecting to win on the RSA Chase winner from Cheltenham, Cooldine.
Unfortunately, the latter did not show the same sparkle he had at Prestbury Park and trailed home a long way behind Rare Bob in fourth.
Willie Mullins was delighted with Hurricane Fly, crediting the jockey with “a balls-of-steel-ride” on the horse.
“He just sat and sat and waited and while he probably had to nudge his way past Kempes and Riverside Theatre, once he got going, he was fine,” the trainer said.
If Mullins now has a serious Champion Hurdle hope to look forward to, it may be that Paul Nicholls’ will have to go back to the drawing board if he is to re-find the form the horse showed just over a year ago.
Yesterday he was lucky – and everyone who witnessed it thought so too.
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