Approach in Newbury contention
Final Approach and Sailors Warn are the two potential Irish challengers among the 24 confirmations for the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury on Saturday.
The Willie Mullins-trained Final Approach landed the County Hurdle at last year's Champion Hurdle and returned to winning ways at Cork early last month. Sailors Warn, trained by Edward O'Grady, was last seen finishing seventh behind Raya Star in the Ladbroke at Ascot and is set to reoppose Alan King's winner.
Paul Nicholls concedes Zarkandar has not been trained with Saturday's race as his highest priority - although he could still easily turn out to be good enough to win the prestigious handicap.
Last year's Triumph Hurdle winner is not far off being second favourite for the Stan James Champion Hurdle itself and the first Tuesday of the Cheltenham Festival is when Nicholls wants him at his peak. With Ruby Walsh suspended, Daryl Jacob will be aboard the hot favourite, with Harry Derham maintaining his partnership on top-weight Brampour and Harry Skelton taking the mount on Empire Levant.
Nicholls said: "Zarkandar could well go and win and looks well handicapped but whatever happens, win, lose or draw, there will be a lot to come and he has been trained with the Champion Hurdle in mind. At home he's workmanlike but on the track he's different. He's been working OK but is obviously better on the track.
"He's had a racecourse gallop and has done plenty but I'm in the dark as much as anyone. He could win and be a good thing, unless he needs the run more than we thought, but he's done enough work. Saturday will tell us a lot more."
Brampour, the winner of the Greatwood Hurdle, was rather disappointing in the Ladbroke at Ascot in late December, is also pencilled in for Nicholls' Champion team along with Rock On Ruby and potentially Celestial Halo.
The trainer went on: "I ran him a bit quick at Christmas after a good run behind Grandouet and this is his prep for the Champion. Harry takes 7lb off and I know this stops the weight going up for the others, but I think it is probably better for everyone else too. He could run a nice race."
The third member of the squad is Sir Alex Ferguson's Empire Levant. The grey is also returning from a break, having been brushed aside by Rock On Ruby at the Hennessy meeting.
Nicholls said: "He's definitely not without a chance and I think he's a great each-way bet. He had a couple of problems over Christmas and he will probably run here and then go for the County Hurdle. He loves a big galloping track like Newbury."