Zarkandar takes the International Hurdle
Ruby Walsh rider of Zarkandar
(Healy Racing Photos)
Nicholls, on the mark with four winners at the meeting, had said before the contest that he hoped his charge's stamina and guaranteed fitness might come into play and that appeared to be the case as the 6/5 favourite knuckled down bravely to shrug off challenges from both Rock On Ruby and Grandouet.
It was the latter who was last to appear on the scene as Barry Geraghty tried to play his hand as late as possible, but Zarkandar and Ruby Walsh had enough up their sleeves to hold off his threat by two lengths.
Nicholls said: "I don't think he was himself last year, especially after he fell at Aintree and even two weeks before Wincanton (Elite Hurdle) I thought he'd have no chance of running well but he just suddenly picked up and was enjoying his schooling again.
"He's the right age and I think he's still improving. He'll probably go for the Kingwell
in February but I haven't made up my mind."
Zarkandar was ridden by Daryl Jacob in last season's Champion Hurdle, but Nicholls is hoping to persuade Walsh to be on the horse in this year's race.
"There's never a shortage of jockeys if Ruby wants to pick Hurricane Fly but this horse will have reminded him of his ability and we're really looking forward to March," he said.
Bookmakers Sky Bet reacted to the race by cutting both the winner and runner-up to 6/1 for the Champion Hurdle and pushing Rock On Ruby's odds out to 10/1.
Of Grandouet, who was giving 4lb to the winner, trainer Nicky Henderson said: "I want one more run into him before the Champion. I might look at the Kingwell but it depends what else looks like running there."
Rock On Ruby's trainer Harry Fry commented: "I think a combination of the ground and not having had a run has cost him, but Noel felt he was as good as ever and we might go straight to the Festival."