Big Buck’s is back. More than a year after effortlessly extending his unbeaten sequence to 18, the four-time World Hurdle winner returns to Cheltenham for the Cleeve Hurdle on trials day to great fanfare and the delight of everyone connected with the sport.
But will it be the same Big Buck’s; not just the best, but the best by miles? It’s a straightforward question, but we are unlikely to receive a straightforward answer today.
There are three factors to consider. First, his absence from competition: his tendon injury was apparently minor and his lay-off a precautionary measure, but you would have to imagine that it might compromise this comeback performance, even in a small way. Surely there will be at least some ring-rustiness.
Second, his age. He’s 11 now and that often means the very best years are over.
Third, his jockey. Ruby Walsh, now unable to commit to Big Buck’s and so replaced by Sam Twiston-Davies, may have mostly given the impression of a happy passenger, but there were occasions when he needed to employ guile and gentle persuasion on a horse the rider himself has described as an “oddball”. Maybe we will appreciate just what an important role Walsh has played in the incredible success of Big Buck’s only now that he is no longer part of it.
Big Buck’s was at least a stone better than anything around when he was last in action, rarely breaking sweat, and the opposition has not become stronger in his absence. Even so, Reve De Sivola, Boston Bob and At Fishers Cross, though much of a muchness on form, are all capable of taking advantage of an off-song Big Buck’s.
On the soft ground that brings out the best in all three of his main rivals, I picture Big Buck’s being involved in a scrap up the final hill and maybe even losing out to Reve De Sivola (3.35 Cheltenham) or Boston Bob, but, all things considered, still emerging as the one to beat again at the Festival in March.
The subplot that is Annie Power thickens with Willie Mullins’ brilliant mare turning out under Walsh over two miles at Doncaster. This would suggest that a Champion Hurdle challenge is being seriously entertained, rather than a crack at Big Buck’s, but we should know more after a weekend when Hurricane Fly, Jezki and Our Conor also meet again at Leopardstown.
Town Moor’s feature is the Skybet Chase, in which Native Gallery (3.15 Doncaster), lightly raced and well handicapped over fences, is preferred to a back-to-form The Druids Nephew.
The progressive Hennessy runner-up, Rocky Creek (2.25 Cheltenham), has a lot going for him in the Argento Chase, although old rival Houblon Des Obeaux is by no means out of it if he puts in one of his better jumping rounds.
Soft ground specialist Shangani (1.50 Cheltenham) looks ready to win again, while the potentially very smart novice hurdlers, Rathvinden (3.00 Cheltenham) and Blakemount (2.40 Doncaster) are others worth a second look.
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