when champion trainer Paul Nicholls made the decision to switch Big Buck’s back to smaller obstacles after a fall over fences, it proved to be inspired – the legendary horse went on to win four successive renewals of the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
Now Nicholls hopes that history will repeat itself when he saddles Saphir Du Rheu in today’s feature. This horse parted company with jockey Sam Twiston-Davies at both Newbury and Kempton before winning an informative Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham at the end of January.
And the similarities do not end here – like the now retired Big Buck’s, the young pretender runs in the red, white and black colours of leading owner Andy Stewart and his family.
That said, Nicholls remains of the view that Saphir Du Rheu’s long-term future, after this assignment, is likely to be over the larger obstacles. “We ended up last season rated 165 over hurdles with him and we went chasing with him,” he said. “He parted company with Sam first time, then won well at Exeter next time. After that he had a fall at Kempton over Christmas.
“He’s still a young horse so we decided to go hurdling again as the World Hurdle is wide open. Sam thinks he may win a Gold Cup with him. Whereas Big Buck’s didn’t jump a fence, this lad will jump in the future some time as he is a big, scopey horse.”
Ironically the biggest threat to Saphir Du Rheu could be posed by stablemate Zarkandar, who is a previous Grade One winner in both England and France.
“Zarkandar has had a great season, winning the French Champion Hurdle in the autumn very nicely and getting beaten by a short head in the Long Walk at Ascot,” said Nicholls. “We have kept him fresh for Cheltenham this year on purpose as he is so much better when fresh.”
It would be wrong, however, not to discount Cole Harden, who came to prominence when winning the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby under Gavin Sheehan.
Trainer Warren Greatrex hopes a wind operation and faster ground will see him get much closer to Saphir Du Rheu than in the soft-ground Cleeve in which he was fourth.
“He’s in great form – the best form I’ve probably had him. He’s fit and ready to go,” said Greatrex. “His best two runs have been on good ground.
“On good ground, the way he goes about it, you’ll get a run for your money anyway.”