Dawn yesterday brought such a deluge in Lambourn that Nicky Henderson was tempted not to work his horses; later on, moreover, he would have an especially distressing funeral to attend. He should be commended for his forbearance, then, in embracing his obligations as host of a media open morning to promote the race closest to the heart of Dai Walters.
As owner of one of the best horses stabled at Seven Barrows, of course, Walters could rely on his trainer to show due enthusiasm for Oscar Whisky's defence of the William Hill Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las on Saturday week. Oscar Whisky will be dropping back to two miles in search of the biggest prize offered at Carmarthenshire's thriving new track, which is also owned by Walters, before trying three miles against Big Buck's at the Cheltenham Festival in March. But some are urging both men to view the race not so much as a compulsory detour, as a crossroads.
For now they are simply keeping their options open, by entering Oscar Whisky for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, in which he finished third last year, as well as the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. Walters reckons the odds in favour of the longer race at 60-40, but Henderson has long sounded more emphatic.
"I wish there was a two-and-a-half-mile championship hurdle," he said, picking his way through the puddles. "But there isn't. The Aintree Hurdle is the obvious thing, and he did win that well last year. All being well, his programme will be Ffos Las, Cheltenham and then back to Aintree. But you've still got horses like Hurricane Fly around, at two miles.
"Obviously, if he breaks the track record at Ffos Las, we might think again. And if you go up to three miles you walk into Big Buck's, who is probably the least beatable of them all. It is daunting. But this horse was third in the Champion last year and I don't see where the improvement is supposed to come from, to win it. And the one thing he will have – as a Champion Hurdle third – is the natural speed to travel with Big Buck's. If his stamina lasts, he must have as good a chance as any horse has had of getting somewhere near him."
Over intermediate distances, Henderson has been dazzled by the way Oscar Whisky has bounded up the hill on his last two visits to Cheltenham – latterly when coasting home in a small field on New Year's Day. And he stressed that his preferences are entirely independent of the presence in his yard of two Champion Hurdle contenders in Binocular, who has had a recent wind operation and goes to Sandown the same afternoon as the Ffos Las race, and Grandouet, who heads to Wincanton a fortnight later (another hope, Spirit Son, was ruled out through injury last weekend). Henderson has come as close as anyone to blemishing the immaculate hurdling record of Big Buck's, having saddled Punchestowns to finish a fine second in the first of the champion's three Festival wins. As he noted, Punchestowns would never have made the frame in a Champion Hurdle – "not in a million years" – and it is interesting to speculate whether even Big Buck's could do so.
"I suspect he probably could," Henderson said. "You'd have to ask Paul [Nicholls, trainer of Big Buck's]. That's not my department. He certainly wouldn't want to go through one of his little patches coming down the hill. But Big Buck's hasn't put a foot wrong for three years. At Ascot the other day the commentator got frightfully excited, saying he had a fight on his hands. It was a first-round knockout."
Henderson is unlikely to witness the champion's rehearsal on the trials card at Cheltenham on Saturday, with the outstanding novice Sprinter Sacre potentially contributing to a rather stronger representation for the stable up at Doncaster. Sprinter Sacre could yet wait for Newbury a fortnight later, however, a card that is now a confirmed target for Long Run, who evidently shone through the rain yesterday morning. The Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup winner's jockey, Sam Waley-Cohen, is overdue a change of luck this winter and suffered another disappointment yesterday when Oscar Time, runner-up in the John Smith's Grand National last year, was ruled out of the race this time round with a leg injury.
Chris McGrath's nap
City Ground (3.10 Musselburgh)
On a good mark, judged on his novice form, and was taking a big step forward on disappointing reappearance when unseating last time.
Shifting Star (3.50 Lingfield)
Has steadily retrieved top form for his new yard.
One to watch
It's a Gimme (Jonjo O'Neill) should be pardoned an odds-on defeat in a steadily run race at Wincanton last weekend, given the slip when short of room before closing well.
Where the money's going
Grands Crus is 15-8 from 9-4 with Coral for the Argento Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday.