Laid at 99-1 in running with the sponsors, Zarkandar produced a remarkable rally to extend his unbeaten record over timber in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury yesterday.
The richest handicap of its type in the calendar, transferred after last Saturday's card was frozen off, proved a frantic affair – and things might well have turned out differently, had Darlan not given Tony McCoy a heavy fall two out. But the 11-4 favourite, among the first off the bridle, regrouped dourly to outstay Get Me Out Of Here and Raya Star on the flat, scoring by just over a length.
On the face of it, last season's top juvenile had been obliged to work too hard – off a fairly indulgent handicap mark – for his rider, Ruby Walsh, to be at all concerned about switching to Hurricane Fly for his defence of the Stan James Champion Hurdle next month. But Paul Nicholls reiterated that he has been training Zarkandar for Cheltenham, and Walsh promised that Daryl Jacob can anticipate progress.
"He's going to improve a ton for the experience as well," Walsh said. "In fairness to a horse with only three runs, I didn't see any of the first four hurdles – so there was no way he did, either. He jumped impeccably, stayed on really well in the straight and pulled up when he got to the front. He showed what you need to win a Champion Hurdle: stamina. And he's the first horse in 40 years to win this race without a prep."
Hurricane Fly is 8-11 with Stan James, who offer Zarkandar at 5-1. Grandouet, on 7-1, misses today's Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton today after knocking a hind leg in his stall.