Celestial Halo sealed his return to form with a decisive success in the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell yesterday.
Beaten only a neck in the Champion Hurdle two years ago, Celestial Halo had a miserable spell in novice chases earlier in the season but is looking much happier now that he is back over timber.
Those who had been disposed to take a dim view of Mille Chief's scrap with the Paul Nicholls-trained charge at Wincanton the previous weekend should perhaps be taking a fresh look at that horse's Festival credentials.
The Andy Stewart-owned seven-year-old bounded around Fontwell under Harry Skelton and was in full control by the second-last, eventually beating Trenchant by six lengths. The 11/8 favourite Karabak bungled a flight at halfway and despite Tony McCoy's efforts, could only finish a distant fourth.
Stewart said: "He has been taken out of the Champion Hurdle, but he is still in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle as a precaution in case Big Buck's was not able to run. His aim will be the Aintree Hurdle over two and a half miles and in the summer we hope he can hit the headlines by being Paul's first winner on the Flat in the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot."
One Nicholls' performer heading to Cheltenham is Zarkandar, which was an impressive winner of the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday.
A recent French import and related to the high-class Zarkava, he powered clear over another Gallic recruit, Molotof, to win by two and a quarter lengths under Daryl Jacob. Last year's Triumph Hurdle winner Soldatino won the corresponding race, with Binocular, Punjabi and Well Chief all showing their potential in it down the years. "I was nervous about running him on this (soft) ground but he did everything impressively and he has a bit of class," said Nicholls. "I wanted to run him in a good race and after that he'll go to the Triumph."
Philip Hobbs and jockey Richard Johnson enhanced their fantastic records in the Racing Post Chase with victory for the novice Quinz in the Kempton showpiece. While he holds an entry at Cheltenham, his weight of 10st 8lb in the Aintree Grand National could convince connections to have a crack at the race.
Sent off at 8/1, Johnson took up the running about a mile out and although 50/1 chance Mount Oscar threatened to reel him in, he found more to win by a length and a quarter. Hobbs was winning the race for a fourth time and Johnson a fifth.
"Last year he ran in two novice chases at Newbury and his jumping was moderate, but he is a different horse now," said Hobbs. "He is in the Grand National -- Richard's initial reaction was that it's not a good idea but he would get in without a penalty." (© Independent News Service)