Nicholls on top at Cheltenham
It was to prove yet another glorious Cheltenham Saturday for Paul Nicholls as his four-timer included almost every race of consequence.
In a week which started with the acrimonious departure of retired jumping great Kauto Star, it ended with Nicholls' 18-year-old nephew Harry Derham coming of age aboard the equally youthful Unioniste in the feature Paul Stewart IronSpine Charity Challenge Gold Cup.
Then, just over half an hour later his stablemate Zarkandar claimed top honours against title holder Grandouet and reigning champion hurdler Rock On Ruby in the stanjames.com International Hurdle.
Unioniste was the first four-year-old to land the established Grade Three handicap chase, and had only sneaked into the line-up as a first reserve.
As with Al Ferof, winner of the Paddy Power Gold Cup at the last meeting, Unioniste (15-2) carried the familiar yellow silks of John Hales as he forged 11 lengths clear under a patient ride from the conditional.
Walkon, the 7-2 favourite, was forced to settle for the runner-up prize in the Paddy Power and once again here, despite Robert Thornton's best intentions.
Ruby Walsh started the day helping Nicholls' Far West (2-9 favourite) cement his position as the best juvenile seen so far when strolling clear in an effective match race with Handazan in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial.
Nicholls said: "He's a real stayer and will maybe come back here in January before going for the Triumph."
The Jenny Mould Memorial Handicap Chase produced a thrilling finish between the sport's top two names as Walsh and the Nicholls-trained Shooters Wood (11-4 joint-favourite) thwarted an incredible late charge from Tony McCoy and His Excellency.
This has been a frustrating period for Nicky Henderson amid Nicholls' domination, but Oscar Whisky (1-5 favourite) ended the day well for Seven Barrows when retaining the Osborne House Relkeel Hurdle in a canter.
"Oscar always gets us out of the mire," said Henderson.
"When you see him win like that, you can't possibly believe he won't stay three miles. But if the entries for Cheltenham (Festival) were tomorrow, God knows what you'd put him in."
Coneygree (11-10 favourite), a half-brother to the late Lord Oaksey's Hennessy hero Carruthers, demonstrated a bottomless depth of stamina in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle with trainer Mark Bradstock keeping options open before the Festival.
Emma Lavelle, who had a terrific four-timer across the country herself, was not present to see mud-lover Highland Lodge (2-1) come home 22 lengths clear under Barry Geraghty in the Ryman Stationary Novices' Chase.