One of the more glaring blanks on the CV of Paul Nicholls, the fives-time champion trainer, is the Champion Hurdle. But it is an omission he now hopes, with some justification after Zarkandar's comprehensive defeat of more seasoned rivals in the Triumph Hurdle yesterday, may have been rectified by this time next year. "This is our little Hurricane Fly," he said. "I can't remember when I've been so excited by a young hurdler. And he knows he's good, too."
The four-year-old's sole previous experience of jumping in public had been a comfortable victory 20 days earlier, a tender enough preparation for what is always a helter-skelter of a gallop. But what Nicholls saw in practice behind the scenes 10 days before yesterday's assignment against 22 of his peers, the youngest generation of hurdlers, put the sparkle in Nicholls' eyes and convinced him that his callow charge was ready for the crucible.
"We teach them plenty at home," he said, "where they jump hundreds of things, baby hurdles, poles, little fences, everything. We had a session on the grass, with him in among horses almost like a real race, and it was obvious he'd improved in every department. Today he showed that; he travelled supremely well and just picked them up as soon as he wanted to. He's just very classy."
Zarkandar, a 13-2 shot, sped up the hill to beat Irish-trained filly Unaccompanied by a shade over two lengths and give one of the Manor Farm supersubs Daryl Jacob a first Festival winner. "I had just a dream run all the way," he said, "and a winner here is a dream result."
In betting and jockey booking terms Zarkandar was the Nicholls second string; his stablemate Sam Winner, the 4-1 favourite, finished with a flourish under Ruby Walsh to take fourth. "Daryl rode him to win when Ruby was off injured," explained Nicholls, "and I wasn't going to take him off for this; he's a good part of our team."
The stable's previous Triumph Hurdle winner Celestial Halo went on to be beaten in a photo for the senior title. Zarkandar, who runs for Chris Giles and Jared Sullivan, also has some lineage to live up to; though the son of Azamour could not hack it as a Flat racer himself in the Aga Khan's colours last year, his half-sister Zarkava won a Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
With perfect timing, in the race before the Gold Cup, and much to his relief Nicky Henderson finally hit the back of the net for the first time during the week after no fewer than eight places. And to make sure, he provided not just the winner of the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, Bobs Worth, but also the runner-up, Mossley.
Bobs Worth, a well-backed 15-8 favourite, was also a first success of the week for his rider Barry Geraghty, and the culmination of a shrewd bit of horsetrading, to boot. The Irishman bought the gelding as a yearling investment and sold him on to Henderson for profit three years later. "When I had him," he said, "I must have fed him well, mustn't I?"
Indeed. Yesterday's Grade One three-miler took the six-year-old's unbeaten hurdles run to four. There was, though, a certain irony to the result, and some poignancy. Mossley carries the colours of one of the long-term Seven Barrows patrons, Michael Buckley, as did earlier runners-up Spirit Son and Finian's Rainbow, and poor Lush Life, fatally injured on Thursday. "It seems quite cruel," said Henderson, "that I've beaten him with another of our horses."
The record 11th winner at the meeting for Irish stables came in the County Hurdle, courtesy of the Willie Mullins-trained Final Approach. Only just, though; he and Get Me Out Of Here went past the post as one in the closest finish of the week. It was a classic duel between Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy and it took the judge several minutes to come to his verdict. The distance was the official minimum, a nose, but it was more like a whisker.
By close of play yesterday Walsh, the most successful jockey ever at the Festival, had taken his running total to 32, seven clear of McCoy. Final Approach was Walsh's fifth winner of the week, giving him a sixth Festival jockeys' title and a fourth in a row. He is in the fortunate position of being able to call on ammunition from the leading yards both here and Ireland, those of Nicholls and Mullins, rather like playing up front for Barça and Man U simultaneously.
The Irish added two more, the Foxhunters victor Zemsky and Sir Des Champs in the conditional jockeys' contest, the last-named sealing the week's trainers' title for Mullins in a particularly pleasing way, given that the rider was his nephew Emmet.
But the home side had the final word, through the Colin Tizzard-trained Oiseau De Nuit in the Grand Annual Chase, to win the Anglo-Irish battle 14-13. At Lansdowne Road today, they'd settle for that.