As our Olympians may well appreciate later in the year, the only thing better than winning a gold medal is winning a gold medal with a bit of history attached to it. The biggest stage is the best place to rewrite the record books so, at this week's annual jump-racing championshipfest in Gloucestershire, step forward Big Buck's.
The nine-year-old gelding is odds-on to set a unique mark at the Cheltenham Festival and equal a record winning streak that has lasted for 59 years. Yet this is a horse with none of the popular acclaim of his Paul Nicholls stablemate Kauto Star, a Desert Orchid or a Red Rum; he has not yet leapt the fence that divides his sport from a wider public.
He is one of the best and classiest jumpers ever to have leapt an obstacle, and is peerless in his own specialist sphere. But there's the rub. Big Buck's is not a steeplechaser,with all that job's implied boldness and glamour. He's a hurdler, plying his trade over three-foot-six of flattenable, gorse-packed timber panels rather than four-foot-six of close-packed, unyielding birch. And even among hurdlers he's not one of the perceived elite, those who skim over the minimum distance of two miles. Big Buck's operates over the long distances that are jump racing's least fashionable division.
But he has made being a marathon man sexy. On ratings, which can be used to assess horses of different talents and eras, he is currently the best hurdler in training, better even than the two-mile king Hurricane Fly, due to defend his Champion Hurdle crown on Tuesday and himself judged the best of his ilk since the magnificent Istabraq.
On Thursday Big Buck's, unbeaten in his past 15 races, will go for an unprecedented fourth Ladbrokes World Hurdle, the Grade One stayer's crown. Victory would also enable him to equal the record sequence for a jumper set by Sir Ken, the last of whose 16 serial successes came with the second of his three Champion Hurdles, at the 1953 Festival.
The first step of Big Buck's road to immortality was almost accidental; he reverted to hurdles as a confidence-booster after a clumsy series of efforts over fences. And since he started his winning run in January 2009 he has galloped relentlessly into the hearts of those closest to him and of regular racegoers alike.
At Nicholls' Somerset base Big Buck's is regarded with the same awe and respect accorded to Kauto Star. "He perhaps doesn't get the credit outside the sport that he deserves," said the trainer, "but we're very privileged to have a horse like him, and we know it. Every season I've kept thinking something will come out of the woodwork and give him a real fright, but he just keeps beating them all. What he has done already is quite remarkable; four World Hurdles and equalling that record would be phenomenal."
For his trainer, Big Buck's is a challenge. His ability is beyond doubt, but his personality would keep a convention of psychiatrists happy. He hates being alone, he paces incessantly round his stable, has a tantrum if he is not first of the Manor Farm inmates to be fed in the morning and, as he does not always put it all in on the training gallops, is tricky to bring to peak fitness. "Whatever it takes," added Nicholls, "we'll indulge him."
In his races, Big Buck's is no longer the recidivist he once appeared to be, but can still toy with his supporters' faith with an indolent style and the finishing burst that has to be delivered as late as possible. But for rider Ruby Walsh, whose velvet-fisted horseman's style suits the quirky gelding perfectly, what we see is not what he gets. "Stayers are not supposed to be able to quicken and win on the bridle like he does," he said, "that's why they have to be stayers. But this one has got such an engine, just pricks his ears and goes. He doesn't do flashy, but he'll keep running for you."
For the owner, Andy Stewart, and his family, particularly son Paul during his recovery from a serious spinal injury, Big Buck's has become an inspiration. "Going back over hurdles with the horse after he's been chasing was a bit of a bonkers idea hatched by a mad genius [Nicholls]," said Stewart, "but it doesn't look so bonkers now. It is all a bit of a nervous responsibility and he's bound to be beaten sometime. But win, lose or draw on Thursday, he'll always be special."
Big Buck's cost the wealthy City man a reputed €£400,000 to headhunt as a youngster from France, has earned more than £1 million and will be chasing a purse of £260,000 on Thursday, part of the £3.3 million available this week for 28 contests over four days. Big bucks, yes. But this horse is beyond figures. Big Buck's, priceless.
One pick a day
Tuesday Scotsirish (Willie Mullins) Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase
One of the classiest recruits to the specialist discipline in recent years. Twice a winner at Punchestown this term and not his fault to be taken out, with victory in sight, by an errant rival on his firsttry at Cheltenham. Compensation awaits.
Wednesday Vendor (Alan King) Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
Showed encouraging potential and an excellent attitude on his winning British debut, rallying determinedly after losing all momentum with a slip at the last hurdle. Can show he has also slipped under the handicapper's radar.
Thursday Sonofvic (Paul Nicholls) Pertemps Final
Two for two over hurdles as a novice and has been redirected back to the smaller obstacles after failing to take to fences this season. But has enough of an engine to have run Grands Crus to two lengths on his chasing debut.
Friday Boston Bob (Willie Mullins) Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle
Could not have been more impressive in winning a Grade One on his second hurdles run, then carrying his penalty to victory next time. His target has yet to be confirmed but banker material wherever he turns up.
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