Nicholls delighted as Zarkandar wins Festival warm-up
CHAMPION trainer Paul Nicholls has been much happier with Zarkandar's preparations for the Cheltenham Festival than he was last year.
The 2011 Triumph Hurdle winner chalked up his third win in a row at Wincanton on Saturday to confirm a leading contender for the Stan James Champion Hurdle on March 12 – the first day of the Festival.
Daryl Jacob sent him into the lead after jumping the penultimate hurdle in the Kingwell Hurdle and he won by four and a lengths – his eighth victory from 12 races.
Zarkandar finished fifth in last year's Champion Hurdle after winning the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury, but Nicholls doesn't believe he was at his best that day.
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"I was never really happy with him after the Betfair Hurdle last season but this has been different altogether," he said.
"He's obviously a horse that doesn't want too much work so I have tried to just keep him ticking over.
"They say it takes a couple of years to get to know your horses.
"He does appreciate a test of stamina over two miles, but they'll go a good pace in the Champion and that will help.
"He handles soft ground but as long as it's not quick I will be happy."
Cue Card's trainer Colin Tizzard confirmed the gelding on course for the Festival after he won the Betfair Ascot Chase at Ascot on Saturday.
However, he said he wasn't sure whether Cue Card would run in the Sportingbet.com Queen Mother Champion Chase over two miles or the Ryanair Chase over two miles and five furlongs.
"If Sprinter Sacre wasn't in the two-miler he might go for that, but he looks quite frightening," said Tizzard.
"Cue Card's favourite for the Ryanair and that probably tells a story, but he'll stay in the Queen Mother Champion Chase until the last minute."
Gloucester Rugby stars James Simpson-Daniel and Mike Tindall's racehorse Monbeg Dude finished third in the Grand National Trial at Haydock on Saturday.
The Welsh National hero stayed on in the closing stages to finish 19 lengths behind the winner, Well Refreshed.
Monbeg Dude looks unlikely to take up his entry in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, but one of the handicap chases at the showpiece meeting might be considered.
The Midlands National at Uttoxeter on March 16 also looks suitable target for Monbeg Dude, who hasn't been entered for the Grand National.