Saphir Du Rheu and Zarkandar will try to fill the void left by Big Buck’s when the Ditcheat duo run in today’s World Hurdle at Cheltenham.
With trainer Paul Nicholls having won the race four times with his great stayer, it is now time for his new generation to shine.
The market would suggest they have a fighting chance, too.
Saphir Du Rheu, who carries the same Stewart Family silks as Big Buck’s, and Zarkandar are jostling for favouritism in what is considered the most open renewal for many years.
The former won the Cleeve Hurdle by a neck in January, while Zarkandar finished fourth in last season’s World Hurdle but has shown improved form this term.
Nicholls said of Saphir Du Rheu: “We ended up last season rated 165 over hurdles with him and we went chasing with him.
“He parted company with Sam (Twiston-Davies) first time, then won well at Exeter next time. After that he had a fall at Kempton over Christmas.
“He’s still a young horse so we decided to go hurdling again as the World Hurdle is wide open.
“Sam thinks he may win a Gold Cup with him. Whereas Big Buck’s didn’t jump a fence, this lad will jump in the future some time as he is a big, scopey horse.”
Nicholls has intentionally targeted Zarkandar at the World Hurdle this term, having been kept on ice since a slightly curious run in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December.
The Ditcheat handler said: “Zarkandar has had a great season, winning the French Champion Hurdle in the autumn very nicely and getting beaten a short head in the Long Walk at Ascot when pulling himself up in front.
“We have kept him fresh for Cheltenham this year on purpose as he is so much better when fresh. I think he has a fantastic chance.”
Jockey Noel Fehily feels Zarkandar is in a far happier place than 12 months ago.
He said: “He’s in much better form this year and hopefully he has a great chance.
“I think there’ll be enough pace on so I can follow for as long as I have to, give him a kick and then hopefully he goes on and does it.”
Nicky Henderson also has two stabs at World Hurdle glory in Blue Fashion and Whisper.
The lightly-raced Blue Fashion was last seen finishing second to Faugheen in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot in November — his first outing for a year.
Henderson said: “Blue Fashion is interesting. His form is outstanding.
“Last year, he had one run at Haydock, then we had to put him away.
“We then decided to give him a run in a novice hurdle race, pitched up at Ascot and then Faugheen came along.
“To be honest, we were just going to give him a run over hurdles and then go chasing.
“Then he had a bit of blip, as you can gather, as he has only run twice in two years, but both of the runs were exceptionally good.
“He’s not the easiest to train as he’s quite delicate.”
Whisper claimed Grade One honours at Aintree last season but reverts to hurdling after having had just one try over fences at Exeter in January.
“Whisper has not been on the same planet all year,” said Henderson.
“We have just struggled all year, but the last three weeks he has suddenly started to bloom.
“I would have loved another two weeks with him as it is starting to happen, but it might be a bit too late for the World Hurdle.
“But if he runs and improves, there is always Aintree.”
Cole Harden, winner of the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby on November 1, is quietly fancied in some quarters.
Warren Greatrex hopes a wind operation and faster ground will see him get much closer to Saphir Du Rheu than in the soft-ground Cleeve in which he was fourth.
He said: “He had some great novice form and came back and won really well at Wetherby.
“On soft ground I’ve just been struggling with his wind a bit, so we gave him a wind op after his last run at Cheltenham.
“He’s in great form — the best form I’ve probably had him. He’s fit and ready to go.”
Lieutenant Colonel leads from the front in a seven-strong Irish assault.
Trained in County Kildare by Sandra Hughes and owned by Gigginstown House Stud, the six-year-old has looked a stayer of significant promise this term.
Lieutenant Colonel has won his last two races over hurdles, both at Grade One level, after a chasing career was shelved by former trainer Dessie Hughes, who died in November.
Sandra Hughes said: “He’s probably head of the team this year.
“He’s going there with a chance in a very open year.
“He’s won his two Grade Ones so he certainly deserves to take his chance and I’m not worrying about him travelling.
“A lot of people said when he won the Hatton’s Grace it might have been a soft Grade One, but when he came out and won at Christmas he proved he’s a Grade One horse.”
Jetson has twice chased home Lieutenant Colonel this season, but claimed the notable scalp of Quevega at Punchestown last May.
Trainer Jessica Harrington said: “He sort of suddenly decided he’s a Grade One horse at the age of nine, which is very unusual.
“In the Hatton’s Grace he definitely needed the run and Davy Russell felt going to the last he was going to win.
“At Christmas I think he was a bit unlucky as he’s not very big and he got leant on by the bigger horse and I think he was fairly intimidated, but he ran his heart out.
“He hasn’t had a race since Christmas as there was nothing for him to run in.
“The form is very up and down in England and there hasn’t been anything that’s stood out.”
Monksland has had his issues — he was sidelined for two years until his return in December — but Noel Meade feels a sound surface at Cheltenham could be the making of him.
“It’s been a struggle all year,” said the County Meath handler.
“If you could train him the way you’d want to train him I’m sure he’d be a hell of a horse.
“On better ground I’m sure he’ll be a better horse.
“He has a chance.”
Dedigout defeated Monksland by a short head in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran in January, with trainer Tony Martin hoping for a little cut in the ground.
He said: “The ground will be lovely, it’s just yielding ground, and he won’t mind that at all.
“When he runs on soft ground it just seems to slow the others down more than him, that’s all.
“Hopefully he’ll give a good account of himself.”
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