When Ruby Walsh elected this season to cut down his commuting by throwing his riding lot in wholly with Willie Mullins rather than splitting his time between Ireland's perennial champion and his British oppo Paul Nicholls, his chief regret was the loss of the ride on Big Buck's, the best long-distance hurdler there has ever been. He might have imagined lining up against him in Thursday afternoon's Ladbrokes World Hurdle, but hardly on a horse favourite to beat the great champion.
The emergence of Annie Power has been one of the revelations of the season. The mare is unbeaten and unextended in 10 runs and even Mullins has not yet ascertained the extent of her ability. Females do not often beat males at championship level – the last of only two to do so in this marathon test was Shiul Ar Aghaidh 21 years ago – but Annie Power might just be a freakish talent.
She is certainly in the physical mould of a mystical Irish mare of yesteryear; like Dawn Run, the only animal ever to win a Champion Hurdle and a Gold Cup, she is built more like a gelding and is strong-headed with it, though prettier about the face. She is untried over as far as three miles but on a visit to Cheltenham in January the further she galloped up the finishing hill, the further she left a decent yardstick in Zarkandar behind.
Big Buck's is going for a fifth World Hurdle. He has never lost one he has run in, but his sequence ended when he had to miss last year's edition because of injury. And his aura of invincibility has gone; he was beaten – albeit narrowly – on his comeback run here in January as he tried to extend his winning streak over hurdles to 19.
He is still the highest-rated horse in the field and Nicholls is adamant he will go to the fray fully fit after his allowably ring-rusty return to action. Whether or not a set of flashy yellow, cutting-edge racing plates help him perform – and overcome the statistic that only one his age, 11, has won the race – remains to be seen.
Any race is largely about the horses involved but in this case there cannot help but be a human dimension. Big Buck's' new rider this term is the young buck Sam Twiston-Davies after Nicholls' stable jockey Daryl Jacob declined the offer of what he saw as a poisoned chalice.
On Thursday Jacob will be on stablemate Celestial Halo, runner-up to currently sidelined Solwhit 12 months ago. It was no fault of Twiston-Davies that his mount was beaten in January but he was, and no man will know better than Walsh how to do it again. Of the rest, At Fishers' Cross and Rule The World make most appeal. However, Annie Power (3.20) has not only lived up to her name so far, but gets a 7lb allowance from the boys.
The afternoon's other Grade One senior prize, the Ryanair Chase, is something of a betwixt and between affair, contested by horses who variously own neither the speed, stamina nor class for the Champion Chase or the Gold Cup. A chance is taken that Dynaste (2.40), one of the least exposed in the field, can bounce back to the form that made him one of last year's most exciting novices.
There is nothing odd about the coupling of Walsh and Felix Yonger (1.30) in the opener, and tentative suggestions for plotting through the minefield handicaps are Vics Canvas (2.05), Tap Night (4.00) and There's No Panic (4.40).
What's in a name?
Captain Ocana (1.30)
A Mexican pilot who made an emergency landing at Mallow Racecourse, Co Cork, in 1983 after his jet ran out of fuel en route to Munich.
Croatia's biggest river port, at the confluence of the Vuka and Danube.
Fingal Bay (2.05)
White-sanded mile-long inlet on coast of New South Wales, part of Tomaree National Park.
Lie Forrit (2.05)
An exhortation to your side's scrum on a Scottish rugby field.
Rajdhani Express (2.40)
A superfast railway service in India.
Mala Beach (3.20)
On the Cote d'Azur; named for the eponymous dancer who walked there with her Russian Tsar lover, Nicholas II.