Daryl Jacob has growing confidence over Zarkandar's Cheltenham Festival chances
Daryl Jacob is so sweet on the Champion Hurdle chances of Zarkandar that he would not change places with Ruby Walsh.
Walsh partners favourite Hurricane Fly in Tuesday’s showdown for his Irish retainer Willie Mullins leaving Jacob free to ride Zarkandar for the Paul Nicholls yard from Ditcheat.
Walsh is first jockey to Nicholls who happily shares his services with Mullins and it was no surprise to the Somerset trainer that Walsh stuck with the horse whom he partnered to Cheltenham glory in 2011.
In that same year Zarkandar landed the Triumph Hurdle giving Jacob the first Festival success of his career. Last season both horses were put in the shade by Rock On Ruby who landed the Champion Hurdle with Hurricane Fly and Walsh third and Zarkandar barely a length further back in fifth under Jacob.
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However, this winter Zarkandar has looked a revitalised animal and goes to Cheltenham as 5-1 second favourite with three wins from three races – and Jacob has growing confidence that he can make it four next week.
The 29-year-old Irishman from Wincanton said: “Zarkandar was never really right last season. He had a setback in the autumn with a scar fracture on a hind leg, was rushed to get ready for the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury, which he won, and then coughed before he went to Cheltenham. After that he fell at Aintree.
“This season he is a different horse and I’m really looking forward to Cheltenham. He is bigger and stronger than when he won the Triumph and had just the right preparation at Wincanton last time.
“He’s not a flashy type and was never going to win there by 20 lengths – if you put him in a seller he’d probably not win it by much – but we’re really happy with him.
“As for Hurricane Fly he just seems to beat the same horses in small fields in Ireland. Ruby hasn’t talked about the Champion Hurdle to me but I wouldn’t swop horses with him even if I was given the chance.”
If Zarkandar lands the £400,000 affair he will be one of the few horses to complete the Triumph Hurdle-Champion Hurdle double last achieved by Katchit in 2008.
Hurricane Fly is bidding to achieve an even rarer feat by becoming only the second horse to regain the Champion Hurdle crown after losing it. Comedy Of Errors (1973 and 1975) currently stands alone.
Nicholls reckons there is little between the front five in the betting and the handicapper’s view bears this out as official ratings have them within 7lb of each other. Hurricane Fly is tops on 173 followed by Rock On Ruby (170), Zarkandar (168), Binocular (167) and Grandouet (166).
However, Jacob points out confidence in Hurricane Fly is not as high as it was: “If the Hurricane Fly of two years ago turns up we will have to improve to beat him but last season he was odds-on at 4-6, now he’s 5-4 against.”
Nicholls is quietly confident: “I would like to see the ground on the slow side and a fast-run race – the faster they go, the better Zarkandar is. He’s got a great chance.”
A Zarkandar win would certainly be a happy event for Jacob – and he has got an even happier day lined up for July as wife Kelly is expecting their first child then.