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Nicholls shuffles his pack to deal with Big Buck's injury


With the enforced withdrawal of Big Buck's and Al Ferof from the field of combat for the season, battle-lines are now being redrawn both within the stable, that of Paul Nicholls, of the regrettably absent heroes and without.

The earliest skirmish to take on a new perspective will be Saturday's Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, for which Big Buck's had been 1-7 favourite to notch his 19th victory in succession. Now the three-mile, one-furlong contest will be the first to identify the possible successor to a legend up the Cheltenham hill in March.

Of course, it is perfectly possible, even highly likely, that Big Buck's, whose condition was announced late on Monday, will still be rated best of the marathon division at the end of the campaign, for earlier this month he showed his imperious talent to be intact after his summer break as he sauntered home at Newbury.

The rival who had the closest view of him 18 days ago, the Nick Williams-trained nine-lengths runner-up Reve De Sivola, is among those likely to go for Saturday's Grade One prize, as is Alan King's charge Smad Place, third when Big Buck's won his record fourth World Hurdle at the Festival.

Of the champion's stablemates, Prospect Wells - another Long Walk entry - the novice Wonderful Charm and, intriguingly, veteran Tidal Bay, as adept over hurdles as he is over fences, may be pulled off the sub's bench come Cheltenham. "For sure," Nicholls said of the last-named 11-year-old, "he has enough talent and versatility to make his presence as much felt in the World Hurdle as the Gold Cup."

Nicholls stressed yesterday that the injuries incurred by both Big Buck's and Al Ferof, who had been second favourite for the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, are not career-threatening. Both horses have similar minor tendon damage. "I have learned down the years to stop and sort the problem immediately in these circumstances," he said.

Long Run, trained by Nicky Henderson, has hardened to 7-2 favourite to regain his crown a week today, with Cue Card, from the Colin Tizzard yard, now clear second market choice at 9-2. Ruby Walsh will switch to Nicholls' sole remaining entry, five-time winner Kauto Star's young half-brother Kauto Stone, a 14-1 shot. Another of the high-profile contenders, 12-1 chance Grands Crus, has recovered well from surgery to help his breathing, but a decision on his participation will be made late. "He's pleasing me in his work," said trainer David Pipe, "and I'm hopeful he'll make it, but it will be 11th-hour."

Chris McGrath's Nap

Balinroab (1.50 Newbury) Point-to-point winner who will appreciate the greater test of stamina for his handicap debut after a respectable effort against some smart enough novices over two miles last time.

Next Best

Milo Milan (2.45 Ludlow) Cheekpieces are back on and a decent conditional takes weight off as he tries three miles for the first time on his second run of the season.

One to watch

Helpston (Pam Sly) was going well when he was hampered and came down at Doncaster on Saturday and has a future in staying handicap chases.

Where the money's going:

Cotton Mill (12-1 from 16-1) and Kazlian (16-1 from 25-1) were the sponsor's movers yesterday for The Ladbroke at Ascot on Saturday.