It never seemed terribly likely that his spree might be brought to an end by a superior horse, at least so long as connections declined to risk him over shorter distances.
All along, you suspected that Big Buck's would instead be derailed by a latent imperfection of his own: a mistimed jump, perhaps, or a breakdown of some kind. In the event, the leg injury that ultimately intervened this week was discovered during a routine tour of inspection at his stables. As such, he remains entitled to return one day and extend an immaculate sequence of wins over timber that currently stands at 18.
Any who took Big Buck's for granted will only now grasp what a miracle of soundness and consistency he has been. And they will look at the division he bestrode, and conclude that whatever is gained – in terms of competition – can scarcely redress what has been lost in glamour. The Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot today, for which the champion was originally quoted at microscopic odds, now becomes a first eliminator to find a candidate to fill the vacancy in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at Cheltenham in March. And it is instructive that the favourite, Smad Place, was beaten nearly nine lengths in third when Big Buck's won that race for a fourth time running last season.
In fairness, Smad Place had previously been beaten by only one of 26 rivals in two visits to this track and remains unexposed at this trip. But while his trainer, Alan King, seems satisfied the horse can put a poor comeback behind him, conditions guarantee a slog unprecedented in his career. Trustan Times is respected as an emerging force at this level, having given weight to a strong field at Haydock last time. But it would be typical of Paul Nicholls, for whom Big Buck's has been a mainstay of his reign as champion trainer, to pull a rabbit out of the hat in Prospect Wells (2.00).
True, he is taking something of a shot in the dark with a horse who was able to run Zarkandar to a neck over two miles round a track as sharp as Wincanton on their reappearance. Readily excused a flat run in handicap company the following weekend, which presumably came too soon, Prospect Wells had shaped as though he could open up new horizons as a stayer when fifth in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival, outpaced before staying on stoutly up the hill, beaten barely two lengths. On the face of it, this might seem too brutish an assignment for a horse classy enough to have finished second in the Grand Prix de Paris in his youth, but his pedigree was always very much oriented towards stamina. He looks a fair price at 6-1.
If he does discover fulfilment over this distance, there may be plenty who regret their infidelity after he was turned over as favourite for the Ladbroke Hurdle on this card last season. One of the most valuable handicaps of the winter, today's running looks impossibly competitive. It would be hard enough to nominate the best of Nicky Henderson's four, albeit Cash And Go still has the air of a feasible Champion Hurdle type about him; or one from three running in the colours of J P McManus; or to sort out the five who made the first six in a similar affair at Cheltenham last month. Rattan (3.10) has to reverse form with the rest but was set plenty to do, has a pull in the weights and represents a stable that would hardly be guessing that a return trip across the sea might be warranted.
Henderson was delighted by the chasing debut of Simonsig on yesterday's card, albeit the grey was more or less left to complete a solo school after three of his four rivals – all established as inferior anyway – failed to get round. He nonetheless jumped with terrific energy and bookmakers hastened to trim further still his Racing Post Arkle Chase odds, Coral going 2-1 from 3-1. It was a good day for Barry Geraghty, again able to cruise home on the bridle before trainer Oliver Sherwood acclaimed Puffin Billy as the best prospect he has trained in 20 years.
Chris McGrath's nap
Merry King (2.15 Haydock)
Lastkingofscotland (4.20 Wolverhampton)