Ruby gets out of 'jail' for Newbury feature
Ruby Walsh has come in for the plum ride on Zarkandar in Saturday's Betfair Hurdle, after a change to the Newbury card which allows the Kildare rider to defer a suspension that originally ruled him out of action this weekend.
Paul Nicholls' No 1 jockey picked up a three-day ban at Cheltenham last month and as there was originally no Grade One race on the Betfair Super Saturday card, he was set to be on the sidelines.
However, after it was announced that the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices' Chase would be transferred from last Saturday's abandoned Sandown card to this weekend's fixture at Newbury, the rules state that Walsh can defer his ban on days when Grade One races are run.
Champion trainer Nicholls said on his Twitter account: "After discussing with owners Ruby now switches to Zarkandar and Daryl Jacob rides Empire Levant."
Walsh was thrilled, taking to Twitter and saying: "Looking like I have got a get out of jail card for Saturday! Grade 1 Scilly Isles is my ticket to at least take part. Happy days."
According to Nicholls, Zarkandar has not been trained with Saturday's valuable handicap as his priority. Last year's Triumph Hurdle winner is not far off being second favourite for the Champion Hurdle, and the first day of Cheltenham is when Nicholls wants him at his peak.
Just a five-year-old, Zarkandar won all three starts as a juvenile in Britain, taking the Triumph on the second of those, but he will only be appearing in the second half of the season again, as he has not raced in public since winning at Aintree.
Harry Derham is set to maintain his partnership on top-weight Brampour. "Zarkandar could well go and win and looks well-handicapped, but whatever happens, there will be a lot to come and he has been trained with the Champion Hurdle in mind. Saturday will tell us a lot," said Nicholls.
Brampour, the winner of the Greatwood Hurdle, was rather disappointing at Ascot in late December, but is also pencilled in for Nicholls' Champion team along with Rock On Ruby and potentially Celestial Halo. The trainer went on: "I ran him a bit quick at Christmas after a good run behind Grandouet and this is his prep for the Champion."
The third member of the squad is Alex Ferguson's Empire Levant, which is also returning from a break, having been brushed aside by Rock On Ruby at the Hennessy meeting.
"He's definitely not without a chance and I think he's a great each-way bet," Nicholls said.
Ladbroke winner Raya Star could bid for another major handicap prize for Alan King, while Darlan and Get Me Out Of Here are two major contenders for leading owner JP McManus.
There are two potential Irish challengers in the Willie Mullins-trained Final Approach and Sailors Warn from the Edward O'Grady stable.
The same card is also due to stage the Betfair Denman Chase in which the Nicholls-trained What A Friend, which also includes Ferguson among his owners, is due to line up against Long Run as the reigning Gold Cup champion warms up for his latest showdown with Kauto Star at Cheltenham.
As for Denman, his retirement -- along with serious injury to Master Minded -- 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. Hunting is a possibility one day for Denman but he wouldn't be the easiest ride."