Paul Nicholls: Zarkandar will relish that final hill at Cheltenham Festival
Paul Nicholls enjoyed yet another super Saturday as leading Champion Hurdle contender Zarkandar starred in a magnificent 131-1 across-the-card five-timer for the champion trainer.
While great rival Nicky Henderson remains long odds-on to claim his first trainer’s title since 1987, the master of Ditcheat has no intention of going down without a fight and still holds a narrow lead in the standings, with the Cheltenham Festival now just over three weeks away.
The undoubted highlight of the Nicholls benefit was Zarkandar’s routine victory in the Bathwick Tyres Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. Nicholls said: “That was a proper job. I’m relaxed now that my horses have run well in the big trials and they can’t go quick enough for Zarkandar.
“The old course will suit him at the Festival and the softer it is the better for him.
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“That final hill at Cheltenham suits him, he will relish that.”
Nicholls had earlier struck with Benvolio (17-2) in the Bathwick Tyres Yeovil Handicap Hurdle and completed his Wincanton three-timer with Minellahalfcentury (3-1) in the Bathwick Tyres Taunton Novices’ Hurdle.
The champion trainer’s Rocky Creek and Far West also enhanced their reputations with notable triumphs at Ascot.
The undoubted star of the show at the Berkshire circuit, though, was Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card, who claimed a first Grade One prize since his Champion Bumper romp three years ago in the Betfair Ascot Chase.
The 15-8 favourite turned in a tremendous round of jumping at the head of affairs and victory was assured when closest rival Captain Chris made a real mess of the second-last fence.
Cue Card is entered at Cheltenham in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Ryanair Chase, and the latter seems his most likely target.
“I expect we’ll leave a decision (about Cheltenham) until nearer the time,” said Tizzard.
“If Sprinter Sacre wasn’t in the Queen Mother, that would be very tempting, but if Sprinter Sacre’s there on his A-game, I’d imagine we’ll go the other way.”
It was also an excellent day for the Moore family, with trainer Gary saddling a notable across-the-card double.
The reborn Vino Griego (11-4 favourite) initiated the brace in Ascot’s Weatherbys Hamilton Insurance Chase under the trainer’s son, Jamie.
Less than half an hour later, another of Moore’s sons, conditional jockey Joshua, rode his biggest winner to date when partnering 9-2 favourite Well Refreshed to victory in the Betfred Grand National Trial at Haydock.
The winning trainer said: “You think you’re dreaming sometimes and this is the best day I’ve had for ages – forever, probably.”
There was a turn-up in the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park as So Young (11-4) beat odds-on favourite and stablemate Zaidpour.
Trainer Willie Mullins said: “That’s his first Graded win but he’s always promised to win one. I thought Zaidpour would have won but Paul (Townend) said he was never really travelling after he made a bad mistake. They’ll both be entered at Cheltenham but there are nice prizes at home for them both. It may be best to keep them at home.”