There was welcome-back applause for the long-absent champion before the Cleeve Hurdle and a heartfelt well-done ovation as he returned safe, sound and gallant as ever. But there was no fairytale victory. Even Big Buck’s, the best long-distance hurdler there has ever been, could not overcome a layoff of 420 days, rain-sodden ground and a new pair of hands, those of rising weighing-room talent Sam Twiston-Davies, on his reins.
Big Buck’s defeat – he finished third to the 66-1 outsider of the six-strong field, Knockara Beau, and a resurgent At Fishers Cross – brought to an end a record-breaking 18-race winning streak that had stretched five years. And losing on a legend was always going to rather set Twiston-Davies up for a session in the stocks. Indeed, Daryl Jacob, stable jockey to the horse’s trainer Paul Nicholls, had felt the comeback ride too much of a poisoned chalice.
To some eyes Big Buck’s, who tends to like a target to aim at, was in front too soon; Twiston-Davies let the 11-year-old, who had hurdled with his trademark slickness, stride smoothly and strongly past trailblazers Knockara Beau and Quart De Thaix three from home.
But in fairness, he was still in front half-way up the run-in from the last hurdle, was caught only in the last half-dozen strides and was beaten less than a length into third place, still battling up the Cheltenham hill he knows so well.
And Nicholls, at least, was satisfied with the performance, which still oozed class until ring-rustiness kicked in. “I’m thrilled with the horse,” he said. “He jumped and travelled with all his old zest and just got tired from the back of the last. The ground was very testing and I toyed with taking him out, but I was desperate to get a race into him before the World Hurdle.”
Big Buck’s has won the marathon division crown four times but missed last year’s defence after picking up a tendon injury. “I told Sam to go out and be positive,” Nicholls added, “and if the horse got tired, he got tired, as he was entitled to do. It was only the second time he’d been on grass since his injury and though obviously I’d liked to have won, that will put him bang on for next time.”
Twiston-Davies, too, was disappointed but positive, and knows he will know Big Buck’s far better next time. “Everyone expects so much because he’s won 18 on the bounce,” he said, “but he’d had more than a year off and he needed the run as much as any horse would. He felt very special, as we all know he is, and he’ll run a massive race in the World Hurdle.”
The sponsors of the March showpiece, Ladbrokes, keep Big Buck’s at the head of their market, at 5-4. But Paddy Power prefer Annie Power. The Willie Mullins-trained mare took her unbeaten record to ten with an effortless performance at Doncaster yesterday. Intriguingly, she is the mount of Big Buck’s former jockey Ruby Walsh.
Big Buck’s started favourite for yesterday’s Grade 2 prize, but at 6-5 was odds against for the first time since winning the 2009 World Hurdle. So his defeat was probably less of a shock than Knockara Beau’s success, a first victory in 17 runs at Cheltenham over both hurdles and fences. The 11-year-old, who went last after being headed by Big Buck’s, showed the benefit of recent airway surgery as he found his second wind under Jan Faltejsek and held At Fishers Cross by a short-head.
Despite seeing off a clutch of World Hurdle contenders Knockara Beau will revert to fences for his next giant-killing venture. “The plan is to come back for the Gold Cup,” the Northumberland-based Charlton said.