BIG Buck’s, the record-breaking long-distance hurdler, and stablemate Al Ferof – one of the most exciting steeplechasers in Britain – are set to miss the remainder of the season.
A crestfallen champion trainer Paul Nicholls confirmed the news last night. Both appear to have suffered tendon injuries.
Big Buck’s, unbeaten in 18 races, had been declared yesterday morning for this Saturday’s Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot before the setback.
The injury means he will not attempt to win an unprecedented fifth successive Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March and retirement is now a possibility.
As for Al Ferof, the John Hales-owned grey was one of the leading fancies for Boxing Day’s King George VI Chase at Kempton after defying top weight and heavy ground last month to win the prestigious Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
The domination of both horses had also enabled Nicholls to build a significant lead over Nicky Henderson, his great rival, in the trainers’ title race.
“At evening stables, we discovered a problem with both Big Buck’s and Al Ferof,” said the trainer, writing on his Betfair blog.
“I am not in a position to go into great detail at this point, but I can confirm that Big Buck’s will not be taking up his engagement at Ascot on Saturday and Al Ferof will not be running in the King George.
“Both are unlikely to run again this season.”
Time will be the best healer for both horses, with Andy Stewart – the owner of nine-year-old Big Buck’s – quoted as saying: “He has a tiny tear in one of his legs, so the best way is to let nature heal that.”
He described the timing of both injuries as “a ridiculous coincidence” and revealed that Big Buck’s would be retired if he does not show the old “zest and sparkle” when he returns to training next summer.
“I’m a little bit gutted, but no one has died and the horse is perfectly well,” added Stewart.
Hales, whose now retired Neptune Collonges won this year’s Grand National, confirmed in a brief statement that Al Ferof had suffered a tendon injury. “We’re certainly taking 12 months off,” he added. “He has a slight nick in a tendon. The injury could have happened in a million ways. It’s a big King George disappointment, but he’s had a wonderful 2012.”
Hales does have some consolation – his four-year-old Unioniste defied his inexperience to win Cheltenham’s big pre-Christmas handicap chase on Saturday.
Ironically, the race was sponsored by the Stewart family in aid of spinal research.
The injuries highlight the fragility of racehorses and how success can never be taken for granted. Both big Buck’s and Al Ferof have endured some terrific tussles with galloping grey Grands Crus, who is on course to make his comeback in the King George tomorrow week and renew the faith shown by trainer David Pipe and jockey Tom Scudamore.
The eyecatching seven-year-old was destined to become steeplechasing’s next showstopper after running away with the Grade One Feltham Novices Chases at Kempton 12 months ago.
Those unable to keep pace with the flamboyant grey included Bobs Worth – the subsequent Hennessy winner and ante-post favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup – and Silviniaco Conti, who was a very impressive winner of the Charlie Hall and Betfair Chases for Nicholls.
Yet, while Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti have confirmed their status as Grade One warriors, Grands Crus has struggled in his two runs since his Feltham win last December.
He plodded home to a bitterly disappointing fourth place in the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival – a race won by the Henderson-trained Bobs Worth – before pulling up abruptly in the Paddy Power Gold Cup a month ago when appearing to be travelling as well as Al Ferof four out.
Even though the bottomless ground was a factor, Scudamore reported that the horse – who came off second best to Big Buck’s in two pulsating races at the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals in 2011 – had “a wind problem”.
He has since undergone surgery to have his soft palate cauterised and Pipe is still hopeful that Grands Crus can make the King George line-up where 2010 winner Long Run is now the clear favourite ahead of Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card, who turned Exeter’s Haldon Cup into a procession last month.
Pipe said Grands Crus produced an impressive piece of work on the gallops yesterday.
“He just had a routine gallop and everything is fine,” he said.
“He will be left in at the five-day stage and a decision on the King George will be made very late, as I’ve always said it will be.”
As for Scudamore, he continues to hold Grands Crus in the highest regard and is due to be in action at Catterick’s pre-Christmas meeting today where he is booked to ride outsider Bobbits Way in the handicap chase.
Southwell is hoping to stage National Hunt fixtures in January if the course passes a preliminary inspection on Thursday.
The track was badly hit by the recent floods and had looked like staying closed until February.