With Cheltenham just around the corner, Paul Nicholls exclusively reveals the running plan for his hurdlers at the Festival as well as some of the key races in the build-up...
"Zarkandar is a proven Grade 1 horse who is capable on any ground. Go and watch his five-length defeat of France’s top staying hurdler Gemix off levels at Auteuil in November if you want to see a proper staying performance. But I can get Saphir Du Rheu better than he was in the Cleeve, so I have two pretty decent weapons to fire there."
Paul, on the World Hurdle
We went through the plans and targets for our possible Cheltenham chasers recently, so I thought it would be a good idea to run the rule over our potential hurdling team ahead of a pretty quiet weekend for us.
And some other ante-post plans leading up to the Festival, too.
Let's get the races before Cheltenham out of the way first.
Some of you may have seen me tweeting on Wednesday that Unioniste will not run in the Grand National Trial at Haydock on February 14, and goes to Newbury a week on Saturday.
That's shouldn't have been a surprise. I said here a couple of weeks ago that Unioniste would either go to the Irish Hennessy or the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury next.
So, as it stands, Unioniste goes to Newbury, and Haydock is the current target for my Welsh National runner-up Benvolio, who has been bought by Mrs David Thompson of Cheveley Park Stud fame with a view to the horse running in the Grand National.
We almost certainly won't have a runner in the Irish Hennessy. I have Rocky Creek in the race at the moment but I may aim him at the 3m handicap chase on the opening day of the Festival before going to Aintree, or maybe Kempton next month.
When I was at David Barons', Seagram won that Cheltenham race - it was the Ritz Club in those days - before winning at Aintree.
Unioniste is also one of six we have in the valuable 3m handicap chase at Kempton next month - along with Caid Du Berlais, Easter Day, Rocky Creek, Rolling Aces and Just A Par, who goes to Sandown on Saturday first - and we have a strong band of horses in this division.
Plans are very much up in the air but Rolling Aces is probably the likeliest of the six to go there, with Easter Day another possible, as is Rocky Creek.
And, in other news, I can confirm that Al Ferof goes to Ascot next month for the Betfair Ascot Chase and Mr Mole runs in the Betfair Price Rush Chase at Newbury a week on Saturday.
But back to Cheltenham and our hurdlers.
Obviously, the hurdlers have provided us with our recent Festival successes.
Irving was a disappointment in the Supreme last season, after which he came back coughing, but Lac Fontana won the County. And Southfield Theatre was an agonising near-miss in the Pertemps, not to mention unlucky runs from Katgary in the Fred Winter and Calipto in the Triumph. The latter in good form ahead of the Betfair Hurdle next week, by the way.
Irving remains on course for the Champion Hurdle after his setback over Christmas, and goes to Wincanton for the Axminster before then. But it would probably have to be some performance from Calipto at Newbury off a mark of 143 for him to join him there, and that horse is more likely to run in a handicap at Cheltenham after Newbury.
We don't have too many big guns to fire in the big novice hurdles this season and, to be honest, this is the weakest bunch of juveniles I have had for years.
I had seen my Wincanton winner Urubu D'Irlande mentioned as a possible for the Supreme in some places but unfortunately he is out for the season. I have four in the race, and we have to decide where to go with Vago Collonges.
He travelled so well before finding less than appeared likely over an extended 2m4f110yd at Cheltenham on Saturday that stepping down in trip in a fast-run race is a definite option. Hopefully, we will find out if that suits in the Dovecote at Kempton next month, but I do think that better ground will be a massive help to him wherever he goes.
Tara Point is a possible for the Mares Hurdle - she is also in the Neptune - but we will see.
On the Wednesday, we have three that we could aim at the Neptune, but I won't be running anything in the bumper.
We have a few possibles for the Coral Cup and the Fred Winter, but obviously we won't be making any firms there before we see the weights.
Similar comments apply to the Pertemps on Thursday - and the County and the boys' race on Friday - but we obviously have two good chances in the World Hurdle with Saphir Du Rheu and Zarkandar.
I think that I was misquoted slightly earlier this week when I said that Zarkandar was 'my number one' hope going into the race.
What I meant to get across was that Zarkandar has been my long-term number one for the race but now we have Saphir Du Rheu firmly alongside him after Saturday.
But promising as Saphir Du Rheu was in winning the Cleeve Hurdle - and I can make him better with a certain target to aim at now - beating Reve De Sivola a neck getting 4lb is inferior form to Zarkandar's.
Zarkandar is a proven Grade 1 horse who is capable on any ground. Go and watch his five-length defeat of France's top staying hurdler Gemix off levels at Auteuil in November if you want to see a proper staying performance.
But I can get Saphir Du Rheu better than he was in the Cleeve, so I have two pretty decent weapons to fire there.
I have a few possibles for the Triumph Hurdle - I have entered seven, including my Newbury winner Old Guard, who runs at Sandown tomorrow and who could be interesting on better ground but is more likely a Fred Winter horse - but plans there will be confirmed in the coming weeks.
Like I said earlier, the juveniles that I have run so far have been pretty disappointing on the whole.
But it's not too late for any horse, from any stable, to throw their hat into the ring; remember, Zarkandar made his debut for us in the Adonis at Kempton just three weeks before winning the Triumph. One for punters to bear in mind, perhaps.
Check out Paul's plans for his novices at Cheltenham.