ZARKANDAR emphasised his Champion Hurdle claims with an impressive return to action in the Totepool.com Elite Hurdle at Wincanton on Saturday.
The bookies took note as well with Ladbrokes cutting the five-year-old to 8-1 third favourite for the Cheltenham showdown on March 11 after he won the Grade Two prize by a neck from stablemate Prospect Wells.
No wonder Ditcheat trainer Paul Nicholls purred: "Zarkandar was never right last season but now he is back to where he was – he has never looked better. That was just what we wanted and he'll go now for International (Bula) Hurdle at Cheltenham in December."
Wincanton-based Daryl Jacob gave a fine performance in the saddle indulging in a battle-royal down the home straight with Ruby Walsh on Prospect Wells who was receiving 17lb from the winner.
Jacob – second jockey in the Nicholls set-up – has a soft spot for Zarkandar as the French import gave him his first Cheltenham Festival success in the 2011 Triumph Hurdle.
The horse scored another Grade One success at Aintree three weeks later that year under stable number one Walsh but though there was another notable victory last winter in the Betfair Hurdle – again with Walsh in the plate – the 2011-12 campaign did not go as planned.
Nicholls said: "Zarkandar was cast in his box early season and we rushed to get him ready for the Betfair in February but he coughed after that race and we never had him right when he went to the Champion Hurdle."
Considering Nicholls was not happy with the preparation, the horse produced a stormer at Cheltenham finishing fifth under Jacob beaten less than seven lengths by stablemate Rock On Ruby.
As happened 12 months earlier Zarkandar had his next outing at Aintree but that ended in disaster with a crunching fall – which had repercussions when the gelding returned to training. "He just didn't want to know at first," said Nicholls.
Jacob, however, had a valid explanation for that: "He was probably remembering that fall at Aintree when we tried schooling him again but they did a lot with him and everything was fine on Saturday. This was a definite step in the right direction – he travelled well, jumped well and had a little up his sleeve at the finish.
"Prospect Wells is no slow-coach and Ruby thought the 17lb would swing it his way – I'm just glad I didn't have to make the choice between the two.
"We struggled with Zarkandar last season and he didn't have a great year yet he still ran a blinder in the Champion Hurdle – he's like a little tiger."
As for this season's Champion, Jacob thinks that at this stage it looks wide open but he looks sure to be on board Zarkandar come March provided Walsh sticks with former Champion Hurricane Fly trained by his Irish retainer Willie Mullins.
Nicholls could also be represented in the Champion by Pearl Swan. This was the horse finishing like a rocket in the Triumph Hurdle last March when he slipped and fell at the last flight.
The French-bred has not been seen out since and the trainer reports he will not run until the new year as he suffered an injury during the spring.
Jacob had earlier ended up on the floor on Saturday when Aegean Dawn paid for an early mistake in the novices' chase.
The seven-year-old was originally trained by Robert and Sally Alner (Droop, Hazelbury Bryan) and moved to Nicky Henderson when they retired. However, Aegean Dawn is now back down the road from Hazelbury Bryan with Robert Walford who has set up a yard at Okeford Fitzpaine near Sturminster Newton.
Jacob and Walford were colleagues at the Alner stable and Jacob was delighted to give Walford his first winner as a trainer when partnering Carole's Destiny to victory in a mares' novices' hurdle at Plumpton on Monday of last week.
Walford, whose partner is the Alners' daughter Louise, moved to the yard of his father Tim in Yorkshire two years ago.
He returned this summer and now has ten horses on a site where a sectionalised bungalow imported from Latvia is taking shape for the Alners following Robert's serious car accident five years ago this month which has left him severely disabled.
By David Briers