Zarkander lifts Nicholls' gloom
"I'm relaxed now," was Paul Nicholls' first reaction to the victory of Zarkandar here yesterday in the Kingwell, a trial for next month's Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
It is a time of year, with the biggest prizes just on the horizon, that plays merry hell with a trainer's emotions and Nicholls was in a very different place just two days before.
On Thursday, he had to break the news that the heavily backed Tidal Bay would have to miss the Grand National because of a stress fracture, the third time this winter that one of Nicholls's best horses had suffered a season-ending injury. It was a miserable turn of events but the champion trainer was cheered by three consecutive winners here, as well as two more by Rocky Creek and Far West at Ascot.
Zarkandar's win was easily the most significant, setting him up for a tilt at the Champion, in which he was a running-on fifth last year.
Nicholls was buoyant, describing the gelding's preparation this year as much more promising than 12 months before, when he was on antibiotics for a cough at this stage. "He looked stunning beforehand today," the trainer said. "We've kept him nice and fresh, the run will bring him on.
"He just keeps winning. That's just what we wanted, have a nice gallop round and not have a hard race."
Zarkandar will be ridden at Cheltenham, as here, by Daryl Jacob. Nicholls said he had had a conversation during the week with Ruby Walsh, who accepted he would once more have to side with Hurricane Fly, the champion of two years ago.
That choice was no surprise to Nicholls, who said of Walsh: "He can't get off him, whatever he thinks, 'cos he won the Champion Hurdle. Daryl's got no problem riding this one anyway, so we know where we are and that's ideal.
"If anything happened to Hurricane, God forbid, Ruby's the stable jockey, so he will ride (Zarkandar). But if they both run, then Daryl will ride this one."
Nicholls has enormous faith in Zarkandar, whose dogged style may earn few style points but has proved highly effective.
As he left the course, Nicholls had not yet seen Rocky Creek's success in the Reynoldstown, normally a trial for the Festival's RSA Chase, but his instinct was that it might be better to skip Cheltenham altogether and aim at the Hennessy in the autumn. "He's a baby," the trainer said, though plans remain fluid until he and the owners have had a proper discussion.
Reflecting on the Tidal Bay episode, Nicholls spoke of his regret that the injury came two days after he had expressed such public enthusiasm for the horse's Grand National chance. "It's just sod's law," he said.
Ascot's big race was won by Cue Card after a devastating mistake by Captain Chris at the second last fence.
The winning trainer, Colin Tizzard, said his horse is now likely to line up in the Festival's Ryanair Chase, though the Champion Chase will not be ruled out until the last moment.