With trainer Nicholls having won the race four times with his great stayer, it is now time for his new generation to shine. The market would suggest they have a fighting chance, too.
Saphir Du Rheu, who carries the same Stewart Family silks as Big Buck’s, and Zarkandar are jostling for favouritism in what is considered the most open renewal for many years. The former won the Cleeve Hurdle by a neck in January, while Zarkandar finished fourth in last season’s World Hurdle but has shown improved form this term.
Nicholls said of Saphir Du Rheu: “We ended up last season rated 165 over hurdles with him and we went chasing with him. He parted company with Sam [Twiston-Davies] first time, then won well at Exeter next time. After that he had a fall at Kempton over Christmas. He’s still a young horse so we decided to go hurdling again as the World Hurdle is wide open. Sam thinks he may win a Gold Cup with him. Whereas Big Buck’s didn’t jump a fence, this lad will jump in the future some time as he is a big, scopey horse.”
Nicholls has intentionally targeted Zarkandar at the World Hurdle this term, having been kept on ice since a slightly curious run in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December. The Ditcheat handler said: “Zarkandar has had a great season, winning the French Champion Hurdle in the autumn very nicely and getting beaten a short head in the Long Walk at Ascot when pulling himself up in front. We have kept him fresh for Cheltenham on purpose as he is so much better when fresh. He worked very well at Wincanton and looks great. He has a fantastic chance.”
Jockey Noel Fehily feels Zarkandar is in a far happier place than 12 months ago. He said: “Zarkandar finished fourth in the race last year when he was probably out of form. He’s in much better form this year.”
Nicky Henderson also has two stabs at World Hurdle glory in Blue Fashion and Whisper.
The lightly-raced Blue Fashion finished second to Faugheen in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot in November – his first outing for a year. The Seven Barrows handler said: “Blue Fashion is interesting. His form is outstanding.”
Whisper claimed Grade One honours at Aintree last season but reverts to hurdling after having had just one try over fences at Exeter in January. “Whisper has not been on the same planet all year,” said Henderson. “I would have loved another two weeks with him as it is starting to happen, but it might be a bit too late for the World Hurdle. But if he runs and improves, there is always Aintree.”
Meanwhile, Gordon Elliott is confident Don Cossack can cap his fantastic season by clinching the Ryanair Chase.
The County Meath trainer has never made any secret of the high regard in which he holds the eight-year-old and he has certainly come of age this season, racking up four victories on the spin.
Don Cossack bids to give Ryanair and Gigginstown House Stud supremo Michael O’Leary a first victory in the race he sponsors and Elliott is anticipating a bold show.
He said: “He’s been very good this year, he’s finishing his races out a lot stronger. He’s a short enough price, but he’s entitled to be.”
Jockey Bryan Cooper, on the scoresheet at the Festival yesterday, is in similarly bullish mood. “Don Cossack’s form is rock solid and you still have people picking bits to fault him about, but he’s still a dual Grade One winner,” the jockey told At The Races. “We’re really looking forward to him.”
Don Cossack spearheads a formidable Irish challenge in the two-mile-five-furlong Grade One.
The Ted Walsh-trained Foxrock was touted as a potential Cheltenham Gold Cup contender following a narrow reverse at the hands of Tony McCoy and Carlingford Lough in the Hennessy at Leopardstown but was instead supplemented for this shorter event.
Shark Hanlon’s stable star Hidden Cyclone steps back up in distance for a race in which he chased home the sidelined Dynaste 12 months ago.
The home challenge in the Ryanair is headed by Alan King’s Balder Succes and the Nicky Henderson-trained Ma Filleule, first and second respectively in last month’s Ascot Chase.