Chris McGrath: Big Buck's has earned the right to risk glorious defeat
Eight days after retiring one of his greatest achievers, Paul Nicholls today brings us a champion in his prime.
And perhaps the abrupt pensioning of Denman, a horse who had always seemed indestructible, will remind us all to savour the brilliance of Big Buck's – even when it has almost come to seem routine.
His present streak of 13 consecutive hurdling wins matches that of Bula, in the 1970s, and he is closing inexorably on the record of 16 set by Sir Ken in the 1950s. It is now over three years since his last defeat, when unseating his rider over the final fence in the Hennessy – which mishap prompted Nicholls and his owner, Andy Stewart, to return Big Buck's to hurdles.
No doubt the intimidating presence of Denman and Kauto Star played its part in their decision to abandon the Gold Cup trail. Though one of his stablemates has now packed up, and the other relies on freakish longevity, it seems there will be no going back. And that seems eminently sensible – except, arguably, in a very literal sense.
For while his chosen discipline has contrived to come up with another young buck, in Dynaste, broadly speaking his supremacy is now set in stone. Odds-on for his last 10 starts, Big Buck's has seen off successive pretenders at the Cheltenham Festival in Punchestowns, Time For Rupert and Grands Crus. And while Dynaste was undeniably impressive at Haydock, he raced off 141 there, 33lb below the champion's official rating. If Big Buck's laughs at him, the way he did five inferiors on his Newbury comeback, it is difficult to see where meaningful opposition is going to come from.
Perhaps the answer is for connections to go looking for trouble. For when a horse assembles such an exceptional CV, he is surely owed the chance to establish where the limits of his ability may lie. There seems little danger of that happening, any time soon, over three miles. While Big Buck's remains in his pomp, then, it would be gratifying to see him set a fresh challenge.
A fourth success in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle in March would certainly represent a worthy legacy in the sport's annals. But what would then be the best way to draw level with Sir Ken, at Aintree the following month: with another lap of honour, over three miles, or a gloves-off encounter with Champion Hurdle protagonists over the intermediate trip of two and a half?
Never mind that unbroken chain of wins. All that matters, as Denman shows, is making the most of the time he has. Denman's whole career, after all, was about pushing himself to the limit. And he grew most in our affections on those days when he reached it, whether under a huge weight in the Hennessy or against epoch-making competition in the Gold Cup.
With that example in mind, it would surely be more fulfilling, for connections and fans alike, to allow Big Buck's to explore his full potential, than to extend even a record-breaking sequence of success. Of course, that is not to underestimate the odds he has already defied, not least in terms of soundness. As Nicholls says himself: "He'll get beat one day. That's what racing is all about. You look at the betting and think he's a certainty. But I've always thought one day he'll get himself beat."
But the only feasible quibble at Ascot today is that Big Buck's has not raced right-handed since arriving from France. Obviously he is an unbackable price, and incorrigible optimists are instead offered Cross Kennon – after his own unproductive flirtation with fences – at huge odds for an each-way return.
A far more open affair beckons in the Ladbroke Hurdle, albeit once again the champion trainer produces an obvious favourite. Prospect Wells has so far been beaten only by a really classy Irish novice, at Cheltenham last month, and Nicholls clearly reckons him well treated against these more exposed rivals. As a seasoned operator on the Flat, he will not be taken aback by the frantic environment, and his chance is clear – including, regrettably, to bookmakers.
At the odds, it would be inexcusable not to consider such alternatives as Viva Colonia, still improving for his remarkable young trainer; Sailors Warn, whose Triumph Hurdle sixth showed what he can do with a quicker gallop than in recent starts; and above all Act Of Kalanisi (3.35). From a stable now in better form than when he needed his comeback, he will almost be running loose with his talented young claimer taking off 7lb.
Brendan Powell Jnr looks as if he will go a long way, perhaps even as far as his father, who won the 1988 Grand National on Rhyme N' Reason. One thing he will certainly have been taught is to make the most of the gifts he has. And that imperative is shared by everyone in this precarious walk of life, horse or rider, all the way up to Big Buck's.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Moonlight Drive (2.10 Haydock)
Shaped well over fences on his return, but retains an unexposed profile back over timber for his handicap debut. Looks fairly treated and may have been primed for this – he is owned by the race sponsors.
Whats Up Woody (2.45 Haydock)
Got his act together over fences on final start for Howard Johnson and, better still at this longer trip, looks an intriguing prospect for new yard off the bottom tier of the handicap.
One To Watch
Constant Contact (Donald McCain) was a distant fifth on his hurdling debut midweek at Newbury but showed quiet promise in a hot race, keeping on well from off the pace.
Where The Money's Going
Viva Colonia, who stormed up the hill when a close fifth at Cheltenham last time, is 12-1 from 16-1 with Coral for Ascot's Ladbroke Hurdle today.
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