Nicholls ready to get Zarkandar up and running
Wearing a decidedly affronted air, as he surveyed all the bustle and activity outside his stable, Kauto Star for once found himself a neglected spectator yesterday as his neighbour and former rival was instead restored as centre of attention. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all, and while Denman continues his recuperation from the injury that ended his career in December, he is not yet in a condition to be paraded before the race that bears his name on Saturday. Not that even Denman could be counted the most remarkable veteran posing for the cameras during a morning to promote the big Newbury card – joined, as he was, by two of the humbling servicemen who will shortly be "Walking With The Wounded" up Everest itself.
Their expedition will be suitably honoured on Saturday, at a meeting now run under the Betfair banner. In the meantime, however, relative trivialities that warrant consideration include the reappearance of last season's champion juvenile in Europe's most valuable handicap hurdle.
Zarkandar's Triumph Hurdle form has worked out so well that some consider him "thrown in" with 11st 1lb in the Betfair Hurdle, not least thanks to the compression of the weights by his stablemate, Brampour. Himself only ninth in the Triumph, at levels, Brampour must now concede 11lbs to the favourite, having in the meantime won two valuable handicaps.
Zarkandar has been keeping his powder dry, even as Unaccompanied and Grandouet have stepped up on their podium finishes at Cheltenham. But Paul Nicholls stressed that his priority will once again be the Festival, and that just three starts over timber may leave him short of experience.
"I've done as much as I can with him, and he's schooling great," the champion trainer said. "But win, lose or draw, he's bound to come on a ton. Whether he's well in or not, we'll only know on Saturday. He might well go and win. But this will only be his prep race for the Champion Hurdle – that's where I want him absolutely at his best. And, in a race as fiercely competitive as this, not having that practice might be a disadvantage. At home, you wouldn't know. Brampour would murder him on the gallops. He's one of those that saves his best for the track."
Nicholls has been at pains not to rush Zarkandar, albeit his absence until now was sooner by accident than design. "He did have a bit of a setback in October, when cast in his box," Nicholls explained. "We decided then that as he wouldn't be ready for Christmas, we would just give him one run and go for the Champion. He did have a breathing operation last summer, and at five he has still got a lot in front of him."
Though he expects Brampour to run a good Champion trial himself, with Harry Derham taking off 7lbs, Nicholls left no doubt about his idea of the value – with the favourite now trading at 100-30 on Betfair. "Zarkandar might have been a good bet at 8-1 but not now," he said. "To me, Empire Levant off 10st 3lbs is a really good each-way price at 16-1. He's going to be a cracking chaser, but I'm sure he's got another big hurdle race in him first – and he does go very well fresh."
What A Friend, who likewise includes Sir Alex Ferguson among his owners, is on target for the Betfair Denman Chase, where Long Run warms up for his latest showdown with Kauto Star in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.
As for Denman, his retirement prompted Nicholls to reiterate his exasperation with those who gave up on Kauto Star before his amazing rejuvenation this season. "That's why the retirement thing always bugs me," he said. "The moment they retire, life suddenly changes.
"If you could ask them whether they would prefer to be stuck out in a cold wet field, or living in a five-star hotel – well, it wouldn't really be a choice, would it? Hunting is a possibility one day for Denman but he wouldn't be the easiest ride in the world. We'll find something for him, though."
Chris McGrath's Nap: Jawaab (4.45 Southwell)
Well treated now after a disappointing spell, 12lbs lower than his latest success less than a year ago, and offered signs of renewal last time.
Next best: Upper Lambourn (3.45 Southwell)
Flourishing in claimers of late and can carry on the good work back in handicaps for his new trainer, who has such a fine record round here.
One to watch: Hada Men (Brian Ellison) has been thriving for his new yard on the all-weather and third in a steadily-run race at Newcastle last week promised more over hurdles when given a stiffer test.
Where the money's going: Quel Esprit is 11-4 from 7-2 with Paddy Power for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday; Sizing Europe is meanwhile 11-10 from 6-4 with Ladbrokes for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
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