Paul Nicholls will be hoping Zarkandar can lay down a strong marker for next month's Champion Hurdle when he takes on five others in the Grade Two Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton on Saturday. The 6-year-old is set to make his final appearance before heading to Cheltenham Festival and he is firm favourite for this weekend's two mile contest.
Zarkandar, the 2011 Triumph Hurdle winner, has won six of seven starts over hurdles during his impressive career and he is looking to make it three wins from three outings this season. The Azamar gelding won over Saturday's course and distance in the Elite Hurdle in November before defeating Grandouet on heavy ground in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last time.
Grandouet doesn't take his chance in Saturday's race and that has left Zarkandar as the outright 4/9 favourite with Bet365, while he is currently a top price 6/1 second-favourite for next month's Champion Hurdle, where he looks more than capable of improving on last year's fast-finishing fifth. Zarkandar is joined by stablemate Celestial Halo on Saturday and he makes his much-anticipated seasonal debut. The 9-year-old hasn't been seen since finishing ninth of 10 in last season's Champion Hurdle but he has finished runner-up in the last two renewals of the Kingwell and can be backed at 8/1 this weekend.
The biggest threat to Zarkandar could come from the stables of Alan King, who has won two of the past three renewals of this Grade Two. King is dual-handed and the progressive Raya Star looks to be his first string after producing some fine efforts so far. The 7-year-old has impressed over hurdles in the past, winning the Ladbroke and Scottish Champion Hurdle, and he has progressed in exciting fashion this term. He was second to Oscar Whisky before producing a career best effort to finish runner-up to Darlan in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, with B365 pricing him 4/1 for Saturday.
Balder Success (25/1) joins Raya Star from the stables of King and he will hope to improve on a couple of disappointing efforts in his last two. The 5-year-old is a fine hurdler and he prefers these smaller field events but he could only finish third to Zarkandar over this course and distance in November, while he has failed to build on victory in a minor event at Haydock.
Meanwhile, Khyber Kim (14/1) makes his first appearance since re-joining Nicky Henderson and his first appearance since April 2011. The 11-year-old was a classy performer in his day, winning the 2010 Aintree Hurdle and finishing runner-up in the Champion Hurdle during the same year, and it will be interesting to see how he copes on his return from such a long lay-off.
Finally, Monte Cavallo (50/1) completes the field for Rebecca Curtis after some decent efforts in lesser company, although this looks a big ask and it is Zarkandar who is fancied to enhance his credentials for next month's Cheltenham Festival.
4/1 Raya Star
8/1 Celestial Halo
14/1 Khyber Kim
25/1 Balder Success
50/1 Monte Cavallo
Odds supplied by Bet365.com, with best odds guaranteed on all UK and Irish horse racing.
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