As Plan Bs go, winning a championship contest here during this particular week has a lot to recommend it. Big Buck's, the steeplechaser manqué, is now top of the pile among staying hurdlers. A clumsy fall at the last fence in the Hennessy Gold Cup four months ago prompted his redirection to the smaller obstacles and yesterday he gave Ruby Walsh his fifth success of the Festival in the World Hurdle.
Big Buck's is a horse with boundless talent but a recidivist attitude, with Walsh's iron hand in a velvet glove the perfect foil. "We need that man on board," said trainer Paul Nicholls. "Watch the horse in his races and know him at home and you'll know he keeps plenty for himself. And even today he had those ears pricked as he went past the post."
The tall, dark six-year-old is the sort who is always better with something to aim at rather than being the target, and a mistake at the last hurdle, when upsides Punchestowns, may well have helped his cause. He had to regain, rather than retain, the lead, which he did halfway up the hill, and forged a length and three-quarters ahead of his rival almost before he realised he was in front. "He has a huge engine," confirmed Walsh, "but it's just a matter of getting the power out of him. He is quirky but when he's doing it right he's a cracking horse."
French raider Kasbah Bliss, last year's runner-up and the odds-on favourite, was a disappointment. He cruised towards the front rank at the penultimate flight but then faded and was passed for third-place on the run-in by Irish outsider Powerstation. "No excuse at all," said trainer François Doumen. "He was 200 per cent ready, but just couldn't catch them up."
Big Buck's, who carries the colours of Nicholls' long-time supporter Andy Stewart, is likely to return to fences in due course, but not before another crack at the World Hurdle next year.
"We tried to make him an Arkle horse last year when he wasn't one, and maybe rushed him a bit," the trainer said. "Two miles is too quick for him and he wasn't the bravest at his fences, despite winning twice. His confidence will come back over fences in time, though. We bought him as a Gold Cup prospect, and I can see him in that race in two years' time, perhaps as an eight-year-old."
The presence of Stewart's son Paul alongside him on the podium in a wheelchair both put his success in perspective and magnified his pleasure in it. The young man broke his back in a snowboarding accident during the winter and faces a lengthy recovery. "My horses run in the name of The Stewart Family," Andy said, "and this week was all about getting one of us out of hospital. And he's determined to stay until the last tomorrow to watch Poquelin. "
The day's other Grade One contest, the Ryanair Chase, also involved a winner who might have been somewhere else, but the execution of Imperial Commander's victory in the two and a half miler on the day was emphatically Plan A. The eight-year-old, who had given notice that he could be a big-stage player when he took the Paddy Power Gold Cup here in November, took yesterday's race by the scruff from the off. The pivotal point came at the fourth-last fence where his rider, Paddy Brennan, who had set a relentless, rhythmic gallop, upped the ante and the hot favourite Voy Por Ustedes blundered horribly.
"The idea was to take the sting out of the others," said trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies. "We know he stays, and we know he can come up this hill." Brennan concurred. "The idea was to put the pressure on Choc [Thornton, on Voy Por Ustedes] and get him off the bridle and force him into errors. And it worked. Mine is such a tough horse; they came at him one after the other and he shrugged them off."
Imperial Commander had not run since finishing sixth to Kauto Star in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. "He was just about the only one to have a crack at the winner and make a race of it," added Twiston-Davies, "but there was no point in taking Kauto Star on again this season, even here, so this race was the obvious alternative. Next year, though, the plan is to come back for the big one."
After two days of Irish hegemony, the home side struck back with a clean sweep, including a notable double for Venetia Williams with Kayf Aramis in the Pertemps Hurdle Final and Something Wells, who for good measure beat stablemate Ping Pong Sivola, in the Freddie Williams Festival Plate. Nicholls took the Jewson Novices' Chase with handicap snip Chapoturgeon and John Quinn-trained Character Building booked his place in the Grand National in the finale.
Something Wells's race claimed the life of faller Clarified, the week's first fatality. Two jockeys ended the day in hospital, Paul Carberry – who had returned to action after a leg injury only on Tuesday – with a fractured rib and punctured lung after a buffeting fall from Jaamid in the opener, and the amateur Oliver Greenall with abdomen damage.
Festival pacesetters: After three days
Ruby Walsh: 5 wins
Barry Geraghty: 2
Willie Mullins: 3 wins
Paul Nicholls: 3
Venetia Williams: 2
Nigel Twiston-Davies: 2
Britain v Ireland:
Britain: 11 wins