Nicholls believes Zarkandar is a true Champion prospect
ZARKANDAR threw down the gauntlet to his Cheltenham Festival rivals at Prestbury Park on Saturday with trainer Paul Nicholls confidently declaring: "I'm really looking forward to the Champion Hurdle."
He believes the five-year-old, who won the StanJames.com International Hurdle under Ruby Walsh on the final day of the International meeting, is significantly better than he was last season when he finished fifth to Rock On Ruby in the two-mile championship.
Zarkandar, winner of the Triumph Hurdle at the 2011 Festival, underlined his claims to be the best two-mile hurdler in Britain and Ireland with victory over Champion Hurdle rivals Grandouet and Rock On Ruby and give Nicholls one his four successes on Saturday.
"He was never right last season and he was only half the horse he is now," Nicholls said.
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"He was always going to be a better horse this year, he's grown up and I'm really looking forward to getting him right for the Champion Hurdle.
"He could run next at Wincanton in February or here on Festival Trials Day in January, but if he didn't run before the Champion Hurdle it wouldn't worry me. He's a class horse and I love him to bits."
Far West is firmly on course for the Festival too after he gained an easy success for Nicholls in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial under Walsh.
Now unbeaten in his past three races, the youngster will probably run next on Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham on January 26 in a bid to cement his Triumph Hurdle prospects at the showpiece meeting in March.
Nicholls was pleased with how well Far West settled for Walsh on Saturday before racing clear of his only rival Handazan on the run-in to win by 19 lengths.
"In his first two races he was a bit keen, but we've been doing things at home to relax him," he said. "If they're going to be any good they have to relax and you don't want horses to be tanking away.
"He's workmanlike at home rather than flashy but they're always the best horses. You want them to save their best for the track, where it matters."
Nicholls said Shooters Wood will be similarly lightly campaigned before the Festival after he made it two wins out of two at Prestbury Park with his dramatic success in the Jenny Mould Memorial Handicap Chase.
He had looked set to give Walsh another comfortable win after jumping the last fence well clear, but the fast-finishing His Excellency, ridden by AP McCoy, made him pull out all the stops to win by a length and a quarter.
Nicholls said: "He idles in front and Ruby half gave him a breather and was waiting for something to race with – it was great ride.
"We've only had the horse this season and he's getting fitter and fitter. How he was beaten at Newton Abbot in the summer, I don't know, but it just shows how horses can progress as they get fitter. Today was the best he's ever looked.
"He'll probably have a break now and the Grand Annual is the obvious race for him back here in March."
Nicholls' main championship rival Nicky Henderson is facing a dilemma over the high-class Oscar Whisky, who gained the tenth victory of his 14-race career in the Osborne House Relkeel Hurdle.
There is no hurdle race over Oscar Whisky's specialist distance of two and a half miles at the Festival, meaning if he were to race at the meeting he would either have to run in the Champion Hurdle over two miles or the Ladbrokes World Hurdle over three miles, both in which he has already suffered rare defeats.
It means Henderson could by-pass the Festival completely and aim him instead at the Aintree Hurdle over two and half miles at the Grand National meeting in April which he has won for the past two years.
Henderson said: "He's the best two-and-a-half miler in the country but unfortunately that doesn't get you very far. I can't believe there wasn't anything wrong with him when he was beaten in the World Hurdle last season.
"He wouldn't have won over two and a half miles and even Big Buck's couldn't gallop him into the ground over two and a half miles.
"He could come back here for Festival Trials Day and we'll see how things pan out."
Trainer Mark Bradstock paid tribute to the staying power of Coneygree after the gelding set himself up for a trip to the Festival with a gutsy win in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle.
Adopting a 'thou shalt not pass' attitude, he stretched his unbeaten run to three races under a well-judged front-running ride by Mattie Batchelor.
Bradstock said: "Mattie said the horse was wanting to go a bit quicker, but I thought he was going fast enough in that ground. He's tough and he gets three miles.
"He doesn't have to make the running, but when he's enjoying himself and has got his ears pricked like as he had, why not just carry on?"
Going conditions will be crucial to whether Highland Lodge, winner of the Ryman Stationary Novices' Chase under Barry Geraghty, runs at the Festival.
Co-owner Jonathon Lavelle, brother of winning trainer Emma Lavelle and spokesman for owners The Unusual Suspects, said the six-year-old was in his element in testing conditions.
"If in the unlikely event there's soft ground at the Festival he'd have a chance," he said. "There's no doubt that the ground is the key to this horse, he wants soft or heavy going."