- Cheltenham International Meeting, Day Two
Zarkandar wins International Hurdle at Cheltenham
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls lived the sweet and the bitter side of racing at Cheltenham on Saturday as Zarkandar won the International Hurdle but Cristal Bonus suffered a fatal injury.
Zarkandar was one of four winners for Nicholls, who believes his horse's form might tempt winning jockey Ruby Walsh to ride him again in the Champion Hurdle at the racecourse in March.
The 6-5 favourite showed his fitness in resisting a late charge from Grandouet, ridden by Barry Geraghty, who finished second while Rock On Ruby came in third.
Nicholls said: "I don't think he was himself last year, especially after he fell at Aintree and even two weeks before Wincanton (Elite Hurdle) I thought he'd have no chance of running well but he just suddenly picked up and was enjoying his schooling again.
"There's never a shortage of jockeys if Ruby wants to pick Hurricane Fly but this horse will have reminded him of his ability and we're really looking forward to March."
However in the race before, the Charity Challenge Gold Cup, one of Nicholls' stable Cristal Bonus suffered a fatal injury. "It's sad Cristal Bonus has got hurt because I fancied him a bit today as well," Nicholls said.
His nephew Harry Derham went on to win the race aboard Unioniste, a feat made all the more impressive as the horse had only been added to the race list at the eleventh hour.
"It was a good little plan," added Nicholls. "I was pleased with his handicap mark and he knows how to jump, I thought he might not get a chance in a race like this again. Harry gave him a peach of a ride and it's great for him to win a race like this."
In the Relkeel Hurdle, the 1-5 favourite Oscar Whisky romped to victory by 19 lengths ahead of Crack Away Jack and Brampour. The win was a consolation of sorts for Nicky Henderson because he also trains Grandouet, who left it too late to seriously challenge Zarkandar in the International Hurdle.
The seven-year-old made it back-to-back wins in the race and now has 13 wins from 17 starts but Henderson admits he is undecided about which distance suits his horse the most.
"Barry [Geraghty] and I both just said when he wins like that how can he not stay three miles," Henderson said. "I'm not saying we're going down the three-mile route but I'm sure there was something wrong with him that day in March [World Hurdle].
"He can come here again in January and go to Ffos Las but if the entries closed for Cheltenham tomorrow goodness knows what we'd put him in."
In the 1.55 Novices' Hurdle Coneygree was a worthy winner in his move up to three miles as he forged clear of his rivals to win by six lengths from Aerial in second and Midnight Appeal in third. The 11-10 favourite made all the running and although he looked to be in trouble briefly approaching the last hurdle, jockey Matt Batchelor drove him on up the hill after leaping clear.
"I saw them coming at me from the second last so I gave him a slap but he picked up again," Batchelor said. "Although he felt like he was getting a bit tired, I think if anything else had come at him he would have gone away again."
In the first race of the day, the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial, Far West came home ahead of Handazan while Mr Lando was an early casualty. The 2-9 favourite maintained his unbeaten record and pulled away in the closing stages to finish 19 lengths ahead of Handazan but the runner-up tested Far West, ridden by Ruby Walsh, when trying to quicken on the turn home.
"He's hardly done anything since his last run and will maybe come back here in January and then go for the Triumph," Nicholls said.
Highland Lodge beat odds-on favourite Our Father in the Novices' Chase by seizing the initiative four fences from home. By that point the race was a head-to-head and jockey Barry Geraghty out-did Tom Scudamore with a big jump over the fourth last and Our Father could not find a way back. Simply Ben at 33-1 came in third.
Walsh won his second race of the day aboard Shooters Wood who edged His Excellency by a length and a quarter in the Jenny Mould Memorial Handicap Chase. The 11-4 joint-favourite saw off a determined Garynella, who finished third, before His Excellency mounted a challenge which Shooters Wood was equal to.
Nicholls said: "He's idle and Ruby just said he waits for something to come alongside and he goes again."