Riders in eye of the storm pass their rehearsal

Contrasting styles will be on show in the Gold Cup but Walsh, who won on Big Buck's yesterday, and McCoy are on top of their game

If today's big race is to produce a masterpiece, then at least everyone should recognise the signature. Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy used the two Grade One races here yesterday to show why they are the only riders who could properly complete the epochal resonance of this great showdown, between Kauto Star and Denman. From Walsh, on Big Buck's, there was all the nerve and timing that has made him the consummate big-race jockey of his age; McCoy, in perfect counterpoint, infected Albertas Run with a will to win that has few precedents in sporting history.

Their afternoon also condensed the contrasts that have given McCoy's mission today a strangely poignant dimension. Albertas Run, in the Ryanair Chase, was his first success in an elite steeplechase in nearly two years – a statistic bravely brandished by those heretics who question his suitability for Denman.

Big Buck's, in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, was meanwhile one of three odds-on champions returning this week for Walsh and Paul Nicholls. This is the kind of ammunition so conspicuously lacking at Jackdaws Castle – the sumptuous stables, just over the hill, owned by McCoy's employer, J P McManus. McCoy always insists that Jonjo O'Neill could get the best out of any horse sent there, and will have found due satisfaction in the way Albertas Run saw off Poquelin, the favourite, representing the inevitable Walsh-Nicholls combination.

This was a copyright McCoy performance. The 14-times champion had begun his afternoon with a shuddering fall, and lay uncharacteristically still as the paramedics rushed on to the track. There was an anxious hum in the stand. Surely he was not destined to miss his chance for vindication on Denman?

Later McCoy wryly acknowledged the extremes necessary to prevent him resuming his afternoon's work. "When I was on the ground the pain threshold was at the limit," he said. "But I wasn't dead, and I didn't think I'd broken any bones." Instead he merely had stitches in his chin, and a headache, and gave Albertas Run the sort of uninhibited ride that everyone is anticipating on Denman.

Though Walsh closed with a stealth that was just as familiar, McCoy knew that Albertas Run would see out every yard – he had won the RSA Chase here two years previously – and drew Poquelin's sting on the climb to the post. He won by four and a half lengths, with the favourite just holding J'y Vole for second.

McCoy's regard for O'Neill is corroborated by his record here – this was the trainer's 17th Festival success – but they would seem unlikely to satisfy their craving for a Grand National with this horse. He is owned by Trevor Hemmings, and McCoy generally has commitments to McManus at Aintree. Not that he is a certain runner. "He'll probably run at Aintree, but in which race I'm not sure," O'Neill said. "The ground is so important to him – it helps him jump, and when he's like that he's a good horse. He would have won a King George if it hadn't been for Kauto Star, then he'd have been a real hero."

Big Buck's, in contrast, is different class. There were none of those flat spots this time, and punters who had retained sufficient cash and courage must have spent the race marvelling that he could start at 5-6. He was always coasting and Walsh restrained Big Buck's alongside the last of his rivals to fold, Time For Rupert, and released the brake only on the run-in. The champion promptly freewheeled clear, opening a gap of three and a half lengths at the post, and is already 6-4 with the sponsors for the hat-trick next year.

And so the siege was lifted – and not just for the punters. Notably with Master Minded the previous day, the man who trains both Kauto Star and Denman had endured a trying start to the meeting. "If he'd been beaten, I would have been getting worried," Nicholls admitted. "But maybe Master Minded just isn't good enough any more. There's a new champion now [Big Zeb] and that's what this job is about – finding new champions."

He discovered this one in a moment of rather haphazard inspiration, switching Big Buck's back over timber after he unseated Sam Thomas in the Hennessy last season. Andy Stewart, the horse's owner, thought Nicholls "bonkers" but now wonders if this "could be one of the best staying hurdlers we have seen".

Certainly, Nicholls reckoned this a new peak for Big Buck's. "We might go back to fences one day," he said. "You never say never, but there would be no point when he's as good as this."

Otherwise, the card showcased the next generation, among both trainers and jockeys. Two conditionals, Danny Cook and Hadden Frost, celebrated breakthrough wins for David Pipe, while Ballabriggs (another for Hemmings) confirmed the rising stature of Donald McCain, who had already saddled Peddlers Cross to win here the previous day.

Richard Johnson, who won the opener for Philip Hobbs, would of course have been a champion several times over but for McCoy. They each have two winners on the board now, along with Barry Geraghty, but McCoy handed over the armband of the meeting's leading rider even as Walsh pulled up on Big Buck's. Rest assured, to retrieve it on Denman would relieve a frustration not even Johnson could comprehend.

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