sport

Nicholls readies support team

Celestial Halo and Zarkandar will both be in action this weekend.

They will attempt to form what trainer Paul Nicholls feels will be his back-up for Big Buck's in next month's Ladbrokes World Hurdle at Cheltenham.

While four-time staying champion Big Buck's was sidelined last season, Celestial Halo formed an able deputy as he ran second behind Solwhit at the Festival, and after his most recent appearance winning the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, he will compete in the Betfred Mobile (Rendlesham) Hurdle at Haydock.

Daryl Jacob is set to partner Zarkandar over the minimum trip in the Bathwick Tyres Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton, and Nicholls believes the former Triumph and Aintree Hurdle winner could be an interesting proposition when finally stepping up to three miles on March 13.

"Celestial Halo got an infection in a front foot after Newbury and we need to get a run into him before the World Hurdle," said Nicholls.

"There was a choice of running over three at Haydock or two at Wincanton, where he's won before. He's going to run at Haydock and Sam Twiston-Davies is going to ride him.

"Zarkandar wants a run to put him right for the World Hurdle and it will be a test of stamina against Melodic Rendezvous at Wincanton.

"He has run well twice behind Annie Power and if he stays three miles I think we'll have a lot of fun with him over the next few years as he's not big enough to jump a fence.

"I've spoken to Andy Stewart (owner of Big Buck's and Celestial Halo) and I'd imagine Daryl will ride Zarkandar at Cheltenham, as Halo is 10 already and he's not going to get any better."

Those are, of course, not his only two challengers, and Big Buck's looked in gleaming condition at a press event at Nicholls' Somerset stable on Thursday morning.

No longer in the shadows of the retired Kauto Star and Denman, Big Buck's finally relinquished a record-breaking 18-race winning streak over hurdles when caught by Knockara Beau in last month's Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham.

"We could have three or four runners in the race," Nicholls said.

"I've a mind to keep Saphir Du Rheu for chasing but Salubrious will go for the National Spirit at Fontwell first.

"Big Buck's is the main one, though. My feeling is that his run at Cheltenham was as good a run first-time-out as the last five seasons.

"It was a more competitive race and he just got tired halfway up the run-in.

"At the end of the day, if you think I wanted him at his best in January, think again. I only want him for one day next month and I'm happy where he is at the moment.

"He lost 10kg, he's tightened up and I think he looks absolutely fantastic."