'The National didn't make a huge difference to my life. I just like doing my job'
"You'd have to say he (Zarakandar) is the right age now, when you consider how most five-year-olds struggle after winning a Triumph."
Daryl Jacobs lands last year's Tirumph Hurdle on Zarakandar.
Daryl Jacob: Waiting can be agony – and its opposite. Daryl Jacob knows all about both sides of the coin. Last year, the Irish jockey’s face while waiting for the results of the closest photo-finish in Grand National history was a picture of desire and dread, the depths of which were obvious in his ecstatic and emotional response to Neptune Collonges eventually getting the verdict.
But Jacob’s current wait is no ordeal. As number two jockey to British champion trainer Paul Nicholls, he has got used to not making plans until Ruby Walsh has decided on his own. Since Walsh has the choice of Nicholls’s and Willie Mullins’s yards, that leaves him with a series of picks that can be as much of a headache as it is a privilege.
There isn’t a jockey alive who doesn’t get it wrong sometimes. No one’s judgment is infallible. Gordon Richards was famous for getting it wrong when faced with a choice of mounts.
Mick Kinane coughed up the Derby winner High Chaparral to Johnny Murtagh when preferring Hawk Wing, which was ironic considering how Kinane initially made his international reputation by being the ‘super-sub’ of choice.
So weirdly it can be argued that Jacob is in the more comfortable position right now. Being number two to Nicholls is better than most number one gigs anyway. Walsh has the headaches.
Neptune Collonges was a Walsh “spare” in the National. Whatever he discards will still go to the festival with real chances. Jacob knows this better than anyone.
One horse he will definitely ride is Zarkandar in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle. It is two years since Walsh discarded him in the Triumph and Jacob successfully stepped up, the final stamp of approval for the Nicholls gig.
But in the series of handicaps that permeate through the four days, there are untold potential pickings.
Yet it is Zarkandar that could prove the key. Walsh hasn’t hesitated to plump for Hurricane Fly, who managed to finish ahead of Nicholls’s in last year’s Champion Hurdle despite being off-the-boil. The Irish star is a different proposition this time, but then so too is Zarkandar.
Beaten just twice in nine career starts over flights, and one of those defeats came due to a fall, the classically-bred gelding was five last year, traditionally an age tough for comparative novices to compete against their seniors.
Jacob has ridden Zarkandar in two of his three starts this term and reckons another year on his back has made quite a difference. “He has bulked out, and you’d have to say he is the right age now, when you consider how most five-year-olds struggle after winning a Triumph,” he says.
The Co Wexford-raised rider has actually ridden Zarkandar more than Walsh and rates his chances of upsetting Hurricane Fly. But he also knows plenty about the defending champion Rock On Ruby. He was another Walsh discard in 2011 and only just failed to First Lieutenant in the Neptune.
“He has done alright this season without being hugely impressive but you can’t ignore that he has gone and done it before,” Jacob argues.
“Better ground will make a big difference to a few others too. It’s certainly not just about Hurricane Fly. I think it’s a wide open Champion Hurdle.”
Having proved his big-race temperament in the National, a leg of National Hunt racing’s ultimate Triple Crown, along with the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle, the man who learned the ropes at Dessie Hughes’s Curragh yard before rising to the top from his southwest of England base, continues to display a quiet confidence in his own ability.
“The National didn’t make a huge difference to my life really. I just like doing my job. I prefer to keep myself to myself. I’m not one for publicity,” he says, a quality possibly deepened by observing how his brother, Wexford hurler Greg Jacob, has attracted some tabloid headlines in recent years.
It also reflects a professional seriousness that continues to impress Nicholls, a man famous for exacting standards who is not disposed to entertaining excuses. For more than a decade, Nicholls has been central to the course of the Cheltenham Festival. This year, though, is a little different.
“Paul is actually a little more relaxed this year, probably because he doesn’t have the pressure of a Big Bucks, Denman, Kauto Star or Master Minded. And in betting for the leading trainer he’s about 10/1 behind Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins.
Not as much is expected this year.
“But knowing Paul he’ll be putting plenty of pressure on himself. He’s a champion, and he wants to win,” Jacob says.
That such a leading professional is more than happy to entrust the Irishman with the final responsibility of steering his horses is as great a professional tribute as anyone could get.
And waiting to see which horses he actually gets to steer is something Jacob is more than happy to do.