Paul Nicholls’ number one jockey picked up a three-day ban at Cheltenham last month and as there was originally no Grade One race on the ‘Betfair Super Saturday’ card, he was set to be on the sidelines.
However, after the British Horseracing Authority announced that the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase would be transferred from last Saturday’s abandoned Sandown card to this weekend’s fixture at Newbury, BHA rules state that Walsh can defer his ban on days where Grade One races are run.
Champion trainer Nicholls said on his Twitter account: “After discussing with owners Ruby now switches to Zarkandar and Daryl Jacob rides Empire Levant.”
Walsh was thrilled with the news, taking to Twitter and saying: “Looking like I have got a get out of jail card for Saturday! Grade 1 Scilly Isles is my ticket to at least take part. Happy days.”
Nicholls concedes, though, that Zarkandar has not been trained with Saturday’s valuable handicap as his highest priority – although he could still easily turn out to be good enough to win.
Last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner is not far off being second favourite for the Champion Hurdle itself and the first Tuesday of the Cheltenham Festival is when Nicholls wants him at his peak.
Just a five-year-old, Zarkandar won all three starts as a juvenile in Britain, taking the Triumph on the second of those and following up at Aintree but will only be appearing in the second half of the season again, as he has not raced in public since Liverpool.
Harry Derham is set to maintain his partnership on top-weight Brampour.
“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,” said Nicholls.
“He’s a hell of a horse to know if he has improved. 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 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.”
Ladbroke winner Raya Star could bid for another major handicap prize for Alan King, while Darlan and Get Me Out Of Here are two major contenders for leading owner JP McManus.
There are two potential Irish challengers in the Willie Mullins-trained Final Approach and Sailors Warn from the Edward O’Grady stable.
Sire De Grugy, Soldatino, Ubi Ace, Olofi and Third Intention are others who remain in the mix.
Newbury clerk of the course Richard Osgood said the ground was currently good to soft, soft in places.
“We’ve kept a whole lot of fresh ground for the meeting,” he said.
“With the rain and snow, we had around 11 millimetres in the last week and the fleeces covering the track absorb the moisture so it steadily drips through.
“We will leave the covers on until Saturday.”