Cheltenham Festival 2014: ‘Big Bucks is the people’s horse and came back safe and sound’

Trainer Paul Nicholls retired the defeated horse after the World Hurdle

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“If he could jump a fence he’d be up there with Denman and Kauto Star, one of the best I’ve had.” So said trainer Paul Nicholls of the immortal Big Bucks, a freshly-minted retiree. It is hard to conjure a more meaningful testimonial than that. Over hurdles he was peerless, a Cheltenham rock star as good as any stayer in the modern era. Thursday was one reach too many, the great champion run out of it by the fresher legs of the coming generation.

There was no disappointment or sadness at the outcome. The opposite in fact. It was enough that owner Andy Stewart and Nicholls were able to see this still magnificent animal home safely. Goodness knows we have seen this week how it might have ended had disaster struck.

Minds were made up before the race was done. Suspicions that Cheltenham had seen the best of him hardened coming down the hill when the leading group quickened. As they hammered around the final bend for home, Annie Power and More Of That made a passenger of the fading hero on a stretch of turf devoured at his formidable peak.

“We couldn’t ask him to run again,” said Nicholls. “He’s been a wonderful horse, a legend, as good as any I have had. He’s been awesome for the sport.  We are mightily proud of him. He has run a good race today but did not have the legs of old. Halfway round I could see he wasn’t going quite so fluently, wasn’t’ jumping, legs not quite what they were.

“I’m delighted he has finished in one piece. I’d have hated to see him getting beat and something happen to him. It’s the right decision at the right time. To win four World Hurdles is a record, and says it all. All the days he won were great while his fourth World Hurdle was amazing. He will have an honourable retirement.”  

Racing conventions were beautifully observed by Nicholls, bringing back Big Bucks for one last perambulation around the Cheltenham parade ring, but not before the presentations had been made to the owner of this year’s champion, More Of That, J P McManus.

Nicholls led the celebration himself, running alongside his favourite to deliver a high five to the shoulder. The audience bellowed their appreciation. We can only speculate about what a horse might make of such a reception. You would hope Big Bucks felt the love.

“Perhaps we should have retired him when he was injured on his 18-race win streak, but we didn’t and when we took him out at charity appearances when he went into the box he was telling us what he wanted to do,” Stewart said.

 

“He owes me nothing. He beat all-comers. He is 11 years old now. He gets more Christmas cards than I do [174-22], a reflection of why he is more important than I am. He is the people’s horse and he has come back safe and sound. That is what is important. I’ve still got my horse.”

The widespread goodwill washing over Big Bucks restated the centrality of the horse to this endeavour, over and above the material part played. The heightened reactions to the summary execution of injured horses over the opening two days of the festival distorted the picture.

The professional distance between horse and jockey expressed in the clinical testimony of Ruby Walsh, who sits on an individual horse but a few times a season, is not felt by the punter or those who work with the same animal every day. Walsh was, in extremis, making a powerful case for his personal ranking of species, human above horse. Yet, in defeat Big Bucks redressed the balance to a degree, demonstrating the profound and enduring connection between man and beast.

For much of the day Cleeve Hill was invisible in the murk, horses a distant blur, their outlines bleeding into one travelling mass on the far side of the course. Only by the clock and the roar of the crowd did punters in the grandstand know for sure a race had begun.

Watching the horses gallop down the hill out of the mist is arguably more arresting than a clear view under the sun. The nature of the gamble inherent in this game was made plain at the first fence of the day when Nicky Henderson’s much fancied Oscar Whisky somersaulted on landing, taking a heap of cash with it and rendering a waste of time all that meticulous weighing of form that led to the tick against his name.

While the trashed Barry Geraghty, who would recover to land the World Hurdle in breathless finish, was counting his fingers and toes on the deck, the great A P McCoy was making light of early errors to line up Taquin Du Seuil for the run to the post. Beaten up from a fall the night before, McCoy concealed his considerable discomfort behind the set of that iron jaw to get up by half a length from Uxizandre in a furious finish. And to think McCoy was made to wait until the third day for this, his 28th Festival win.

Then again, what he was doing here at all is a wonder given the circumstances surrounding his seven-month-old son, Archie, recovering from cardiac surgery carried out only last Friday. McCoy was the difference in a race that might just have introduced Cheltenham to a future star.

Those who rode with Jonjo O’Neill at his pre-Cheltenham address at neighbouring Jackdaw’s Castle were beguiled by Taquin’s noble stride. “See that,” said O’Neill from his seat in the Land Rover, “that’s how a horse is supposed to run.” 

And now O’Neill is pointing the French beauty towards Friday’s golden summit,. “It was nice to get that one because I do like this horse. I think he’s a horse for the future. Hopefully he will step up to Gold Cup class. There’s no reason not to hope that he will be a Gold Cup horse after that.”

The warm glow generated by the farewell to Big Bucks extended to the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup, contested by amateurs and won by Robbie McNamara, the cousin of J T McNamara, tragically paralysed after falling in the same race a year ago.

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