OF the 23 horses that lined up for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle in March, only two have since managed to win a race over timber. One, Whiteoak, required a third mile to do so at Kempton last month; the other, Celestial Halo, was undeniably impressive on his comeback at Wincanton, but then succumbed to this contagion of disappointment at Cheltenham last Saturday.
So it is that Big Buck's, on the ratings, goes to Ascot on Saturday as the best hurdler in training. Representing the same connections as Celestial Halo, the champion stayer is unbeaten in five starts since stepping up in trip, and will be odds-on to extend his stable's relentless sequence of weekend winners in the BGC Long Walk Hurdle over three miles and a furlong.
At least the 10 other acceptors yesterday included a youngster who is conspicuously on the upgrade in Diamond Harry, a striking winner at Haydock last month. And his trainer, Nick Williams, need not seek far for encouragement in standing up to the heavy artillery rolled out, week after week, by Paul Nicholls.
Yesterday the man who saddled Khyber Kim to beat Celestial Halo at Cheltenham sounded impatient to get through the 11 days that divide him from another crack at Nicholls' dual Gold Cup winner, Kauto Star. Nigel Twiston-Davies was heartbroken to see Imperial Commander thwarted so narrowly in that desperate duel on their mutual reappearance at Haydock, and is exasperated by a general assumption that Kauto Star will gain a more decisive verdict in the William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
"Why is Kauto the only one who is allowed to improve for a run?" Twiston-Davies asked. "We would absolutely expect improvement from our horse. He didn't run well in any of his previous runs over three miles, but the way he won the Paddy Power Gold Cup last year told everybody he did stay. That was two miles five furlongs round Cheltenham, on soft ground, and all he was doing was galloping up the hill. It was very much the same when he won the Ryanair Chase. He doesn't ever look like a non-stayer."
In contrast, Evan Williams admits himself somewhat awed by the notion that Deep Purple earned the right to take on Kauto Star after that exuberant performance at Huntingdon last Thursday. "I've been on the receiving end of mighty beatings from Kauto Star, Denman and the like," Williams said. "I realise how magnificent those animals are. It is intimidating. But our horse keeps raising the bar. I'm not going to definitely commit to the King George, because I want the dust to settle, but of course it will come under strong consideration.
"I thought Huntingdon was a massive step up. There were a few people crabbing it, saying the race fell apart, but I don't know what else the poor old horse can do. Whatever he does, he seems to come in for a bit of criticism, but I'm over the moon: he beat some good yardsticks, and was giving Tartak 10lb."
Williams added that Cappa Bleu, the top-class hunter who fell behind Denman in the Hennessy, would now seek to retrieve his confidence in novice hurdles. "He was a bit shell-shocked after his fall," he said. "I do feel it was a result of inexperience. I had been concerned about that, and we got found out, taking on a great horse like Denman. We'll lower our sights a little bit, and get him to start to enjoy the game again."
Not even Big Buck's, of course, permits us total complacency in a thoroughbred. Ruby Walsh, still dwelling on the defeat of Celestial Halo, put it succinctly yesterday. "I'm a bit puzzled, like everyone else," the jockey said. "I just don't know – horses are strange animals."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Miss Glitters (1.40 Southwell)
Lost her way in the summer but returned from a break to make it three from four over this surface, at the expense of a filly who herself remains otherwise unbeaten round here. Miss Glitters can duly overcome a 6lb higher mark this time.
Super Baby (1.50 Catterick)
After a promising pipe-opener over hurdles, he seemed to miss the cheekpieces last time, dropping out before staying on again late – suggesting he might also be suited by the return to this longer trip.
One to watch
Blossom King (T R George) made a promising debut over fences at Leicester last week, jumping well and going best until lack of fitness seemed to tell in the closing stages.
*Where the money's going
Le Beau Bai is 6-1 favourite from 7-1 with the sponsors for the Coral Welsh National at Chepstow on 28 December.Reuse content