Zarkandar looks the King
Ben Coley provides a horse-by-horse guide to the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton.
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Took an unbeaten record to the Cheltenham Festival as a juvenile but fell early on before unseating Robert Thornton at the first when bidding for Punchestown compensation. Made his return in the Elite Hurdle here and ran a respectable race in third, albeit no match for Zarkandar, before winning a minor event at Haydock. Has since disappointed twice in handicaps but early mistake cost him any chance at Sandown and stamina may have been an issue at Ffos Las, in which case a return to his best wouldn't entirely surprise with conditions here ideal. However, that best shouldn't be good enough to reverse form with Zarkandar.
Exposed campaigner who went close to landing the 2009 Champion Hurdle but has generally struggled in top company since. However, a look at his record in lesser company speaks volumes to his ability and consistency: 14 races in Grade Two hurdles or lower show seven wins, six seconds and a third. That sequence includes a clear second to Binocular in this race last season and a nose second a year previously. So, despite an absence since last year's Champion we can expect that he'll run his usual solid race from the front, it's just a question of how many pass him. I'm predicting two and have him booked for third.
A winner of six of eight starts over hurdles with his only failures coming at the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals, the former when fifth in a slowly-run Champion Hurdle. This season he's battled to victory in the Elite Hurdle here and in the International at Cheltenham, the latter proving that he can produce something close to his best on heavy ground. A second crack at the Champion is the aim of course and with that in mind Paul Nicholls will doubtless have left something to work on, but his form allows for a slightly below-par performance to still be enough and although perhaps not the type to impress visually, he should win.
Beaten in an Aintree handicap off just 116 less than two years ago but has progressed rapidly since, winning four competitive handicaps on a variety of ground including what was at the time a career-best at Ascot last November. Probably improved further still to finish runner-up to Oscar Whisky before chasing home the ill-fated Darlan in the Christmas Hurdle, when sticking to his task admirably having been the first off the bridle. That run indicated that a stronger pace would have seen him in a better light and that's likely here, so with conditions no problem he should be the one to chase home Zarkandar and could yet shake up the favourite.
Upset Celestial Halo in the 2009 International Hurdle before finishing a superb second to Binocular in that season's Champion Hurdle when in the care of Nigel Twiston-Davies. Now back with Nicky Henderson having started his National Hunt career at Seven Barrows, and set to make his first appearance in the best part of two years. Wasn't at his best when last seen so although the very best of his form would make him a fascinating runner and he does go well fresh, it's probably stretching it to anticipate a big run here.
In receipt of close to two stone from Raya Star when beaten over six lengths by him at Ascot and ran to a similar level at Sandown before a modest run on the level. Rated 133, by some way the lowest in this field, and will do well to beat a rival.
There are reasons to expect better from Balder Succes and further progression from Raya Star, but Alan King's pair need to find improvement to beat ZARKANDAR who is by some distance the most likely winner. Paul Nicholls' charge won't be at concert pitch with Cheltenham firmly on the horizon but that shouldn't really matter and should this develop into a battle, he's one to be with in such situations anyway. Far from a flashy type, he should get a lovely tow into the race from admirable stablemate Celestial Halo and can grind out another success on his way to a second try at the Champion Hurdle. All three others mentioned are viable forecast contenders with Raya Star the most likely to fill the runner-up spot, possibly at the expense of Celestial Halo and Balder Succes in that order.