My Cheltenham Radio colleague Dave Farrar has confused more than one listener with his admiration for a horse he refers to as "Big Zed". Given the exploits of Colm Murphy's ex-champion chaser Big Zeb, it's natural for many to think Dave is a little confused, but the horse Mr Farrar holds in such esteem is, in fact, the 2011 Triumph Hurdle hero Zarkandar, and while the nickname may not have caught on yet, a victory in the International Hurdle today (Cheltenham 15:05) coupled with Fazza's infectious enthusiasm may yet see that scenario change. Zarkandar's claims are crystal clear after an impressive defeat of Prospect Wells in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton, and the fitness edge he holds over Grandouet and Rock On Ruby may prove crucial. So, too, may the weight he receives from that pair, and he must win today to prolong his claims as a genuine Champion Hurdle candidate. Some will point to his eclipse in the Champion itself as proof that he doesn't have what it takes to beat the best over 2m, but my view of that contest is very different. Zarkandar usually impresses in appearance, but was decidedly lacklustre in the paddock last March, and I believe that he inability to go with the leaders before plugging on was not the running of a nascent stayer, but that of a horse who was well below his best, but willing to dig deep. It's been established that he was sick after his Betfair Hurdle win, and judging him on his Festival performance is dangerous. He didn't look short of speed around Wincanton's sharp turns, and I believe he will be a major force in the 2013 Champion Hurdle. If that view is correct, then he is an outstanding bet at odds against today.
In the Paul Stewart Ironspine Charity Challenge Gold Cup (or Massey Ferguson for those with very long memories), I believe that Walkon will go well again, despite a reputation of being best fresh. It would certainly pay a compliment to Al Ferof if he, or Nadiya de La Vega, could frank the Paddy Power form, but there is one in the field at a much bigger price who also interests me. Golden Chieftain hasn't always convinced as a performer, for all he's shown himself to have the kind of engine needed to compete at a high level. He's tended to finish weakly at times, and his jumping over fences has not been the most polished, to say the least, but a change of tactics of late has helped him, and he was undeniably impressive when winning a competitive handicap at Worcester in October. That came under front-running tactics and with cheekpieces on for the first time, and good as it looked at the time, it's the subsequent exploits of the beaten horses which makes it most noteworthy. Simply Wings, George Nympton, Current Event and Tatispout all won next time (as did early faller Double Ross), and it's form which stands up to the closest scrutiny. The son of Tikkanen was ostensibly disappointing in the Badger Ales at Wincanton next time, but still shaped very well for a long way before patently failing to get home, and his trademark sloppy jumping was again notably absent. A drop back to 21f will help enormously now, and he will cope with the testing ground better than most (has won his only start when racing on heavy). The fitting of a tongue tie is a slight worry (has had a breathing operation), but he will hopefully see things out better as a result, and while he clearly comes with risks, that is compensated by a current price of 23.0 on Betfair.
Back Zarkandar in the 15:05 at Cheltenham
Back Golden Chieftain in the 14:30 at Cheltenham