While At Fishers Cross and Reve De Sivola do battle for the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot today, one cannot get away from the sense that the most significant action in their staying hurdlers’ category took place in a training spin at Exeter on Thursday.
Big Buck’s, winner of the World Hurdle four times in a row and unbeaten in 18 consecutive races before Paul Nicholls, his trainer, discovered the hint of a tendon injury last winter and immediately laid him off, is almost back.
A pleasing gallop might not sound much to get excited about, but Big Buck’s was so superior to anything else in his area of expertise when we last saw him it still sends out a warning to those with designs on his crown at Cheltenham in March that they are, once again, most likely to be wasting their time.
The Nicholls camp is extremely upbeat, but we will know better whether Big Buck’s, rising 11, is still king when he returns to serious action in the Cleeve Hurdle at Prestbury Park next month.
At Fishers Cross was meant to be the new champion in waiting, but the jury is out after an awkward blunder put paid to his challenge to the talented but exposed Celestial Halo and Reve De Sivola at Newbury last month.
Perhaps it was just a one-off aberration and he will learn from it, but it did come when the heat was being turned up and there is a suspicion that Rebecca Curtis’s six-year-old may not yet be ready to handle the old guard second string, let alone Big Buck’s.
Celestial Halo misses today’s race with a foot injury, but Reve De Sivola (2.25 Ascot), a wide-margin winner of this contest last year and in his element on the testing surface he will again encounter, also has the stuff to see off his younger rival.
Chatterbox caught the eye on his seasonal return and is very much one for the shortlist in the big betting heat, The Ladbroke, but the most significant clue to this always fiendish puzzle was perhaps provided at Cheltenham last month when Dell’ Arca won the Greatwood Hurdle, with Flaxen Flare back in fourth. Dell’ Arca, a €280,000 (£234,000) purchase from France, has been raised 8lb for that victory, but seems certain to improve for what was his first outing in Britain.
Preference, however, is for Flaxen Flare (3.35, Ascot), trained, like last year’s winner, Cause Of Causes, by Gordon Elliott in Ireland. A spectacular winner of the juvenile handicap hurdle at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, this blinkered (and occasionally moody) four-year-old has been earmarked for this prize for some months and should not be inconvenienced by the ground.
Pendra, the winner of his first two races over fences, looks a fine recruit to chasing, but the more experienced Grey Gold (1.50 Ascot), a real mud-lover, may have his measure in the extended two-mile handicap chase.
Special Catch (2.40 Haydock) is my bet of the day. Keith Reveley’s improving hurdler was in the finishing mix with More Of That at the course last month and the form has since been extremely well advertised.
Simonsig, unable to run in the King George VI Chase at Kempton after developing a splint in his near fore, has now been ruled out for the season. A winner at the last two Cheltenham Festivals, the grey will now be put away for the 2014 Boxing Day feature.
Gerard Butler has withdrawn his appeal against a five-year ban imposed by the British Horseracing Authority for doping. The Newmarket trainer admitted injecting four horses with Rexogin, a product designed for human use, which contains the anabolic steroid stanozolol. He also used Sungate, which contains traces of the steroid, on five horses. The disciplinary panel called Butler’s actions “truly appalling behaviour from a licensed trainer”.
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