Cheltenham Festival: Take Zarkandar to zip in and steal former champions' crown

 

By definition, with the last three winners all lining up, the field can only be rated as well up to standard. Yet the first championship race of the week somehow feels a little stale. Much of the form in the Stan James Champion Hurdle has an incestuous look, and would certainly have obtained a different flavour from a rising force like Darlan or My Tent Or Yours. Tragedy claimed the former, of course, while the latter has been restored to novice company in the opener. In their absence, the race becomes an aggregate of conundrums.

The going, for one thing, seems likely to prove unusually demanding this time – yet the lack of an obvious frontrunner, in a small field, could simultaneously result in an inadequate test of stamina for some. Then there is the startling gamble taken by Harry Fry, the young trainer of Rock On Ruby, in trying the reigning champion in blinkers for the first time. All in all, there seems little scope to be dogmatic.

Many find the only such opportunity in Hurricane Fly. The terrific pace he inherited from his sire, Montjeu, certainly makes him best equipped for a sprint finish. And a career record of 14 Grade One wins leaves him uniquely eligible, in this field, to consideration as a genuine great. The only problem is that the same seemed true when he was sent off at odds-on last year, only to flatten out into third behind Rock On Ruby. It was felt that he could not have been quite at as his best, which might be consistent with some uncharacteristically cryptic bulletins from his stable prior to a delayed reappearance. But the bare form of his success here two years ago does leave the door ajar to the possibility that this place might not play absolutely to his strengths.

Rock On Ruby, in contrast, evokes a real old stager up this hill in Hardy Eustace. He seemed to be shaping up adequately enough on the track, but the decision to go for blinkers implies that he may have raised one or two doubts at home. It could well pay off, but it is harder to take that chance when connections were hoping for drier conditions. Maybe they will turn out to be right about the blinkers, and wrong about the ground, in which case he will go close again.

Zarkandar looked short of pace when fifth last year, but he had been badly held up in his preparation and has jumped through every hoop this time round. He handles the going, loves the track and will see things out really well. As his trainer, Paul Nicholls says, his somewhat laboured style makes it hard to know quite what he might yet have in reserve. As a result, he has become one of those horses whose reputation does not always keep up with his achievements. That's far better than the other way round, of course, and a positive ride seems guaranteed to secure Zarkandar (3.20) a place on the podium. In a race so full of questions, you can hope for little more than that.

In contrast, Grandouet is impossible to back with confidence, after just one sighting in 15 months, and must now disprove an air of fragility. His stablemate Binocular is an electric jumper at his best but is unlikely to relish dead ground. The same may be true of Cinders And Ashes, who thrived on good going when thwarting Darlan round here last year, albeit he might still stage some kind of revival after an 11-week absence and back at this track. The bottom line, however, is that exacting conditions seldom call for an exciting horse.

Turf account

CHRIS McGRATH'S NAP: Merry King (2.40)

NEXT BEST: Arabella Boy (4.00)

What's in a name?

MY TENT OR YOURS (William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle)

Was named as the result of a newspaper competition, and very cleverly too. He is by Desert Prince out of Spartan Girl.

PIQUE SOUS (William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle)

French for "penny pincher".

SIMONSIG (Racing Post Arkle Chase)

Wine estate near Stellenbosch, South Africa, named for its views of the majestic Simonsberg mountains. Pronounced 'Simmons-seek'.

WHITE STAR LINE (JLT Specialty Chase)

British shipping line, grimly best remembered for its flagship Titanic, which sank in April 1912. They merged with its chief rival Cunard in 1934.

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