On a tremendously successful day at the office for champion trainer, Paul Nicholls, in which he sent out four winners on a competitive card at Cheltenham, Zarkandar strengthened his claims for even more serious consideration as a potential winner of the Grade 1 Stan James Champion Hurdle back at the Prestbury track in mid-March, writes Elliot Slater.

Fitter than his two main rivals, Grandouet and Rock On Ruby, having already proved himself in great shape with a win at Wincanton last month in the Grade 2 Elite Hurdle, Nicholls’ half-brother to the mighty unbeaten French filly, Zarkava, was sent off a well backed 6/5 favourite to land the spoils.

In a contest that has had an impact on the ante-post market for the main event in three months’ time, Ruby Walsh was always up there disputing the lead and was head to head with champion hurdler winner, Rock On Ruby.

He pulled away from the last as the reigning champ tired in the heavy ground on his seasonal return, allowing Grandouet, (who had been off the course for a year), to put in a big finish and run on well into a very promising second place, two lengths behind Zarkandar.

Nicholls felt that his winner had been in front plenty soon enough, and ideally is best being produced at, or after the final flight.

However, he has been tremendously encouraged by the wellbeing of the gelded son of Azamour who he felt was never quite right last term, despite running some fine races, including winning the Totesport Trophy at Newbury last February.

Bookmakers reacted to Zarkandar’s victory by cutting the five-year-old to a top priced 7/1 second-favourite in the ante-post list for the Champion Hurdle for which former champ Hurricane Run remains a solid 5/1 market leader.

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