Big Buck’s script is a simple one: win today’s Cleeve Hurdle to make it 15 wins on the bounce, land a fourth successive Ladbrokes World Hurdle back at Cheltenham in March – and then break Sir Ken’s all-time record of 16 successive triumphs at Aintree in early April.
But while the likes of David Pipe’s progressive Dynaste and Restless Harry, Wetherby’s John Smith’s Hurdle winner, should be easily despatched at Cheltenham’s Festival trials meeting, owner Andy Stewart is not taking anything for granted.
His star horse has not been defeated since switching to hurdles following his final-fence unseating of Sam Thomas in the 2008 Hennessy at Newbury. If he had beaten Madison Du Berlais, the Cheltenham Gold Cup – and not World Hurdle glory – would have beckoned for the Paul Nicholls-trained horse.
Big Buck’s looked better than ever when winning the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot just over a month ago, Dynaste faded badly after trying to force the pace, and Nicholls believes his horse – notoriously difficult to keep fully fit – will benefit from an extra prep race prior to the World Hurdle.
Stewart, who co-owns Sky Bet Chase contender Aiteen Thirtythree, ran out of superlatives for Big Buck’s long ago, but accepts that his horse of a lifetime cannot go unbeaten forever.
“You never know what will happen, and one day he will get beaten,” he said. “At Ascot he looked better than ever. There was a moment three out where Ruby (Walsh) was careful, but after that it was a formality.
“Dynaste was the second best horse in the race that day. If he’d been ridden differently he’d have finished second. I’m sure they’ll ride him with a bit more patience this time – although he’s no Grands Crus.”
Pipe agreed that forcing tactics cost Dynaste second place at Ascot. He said: “I thought he ran well last time. The way we rode him that day probably cost us second place. Plenty of bubbles get burst before March so it’s just about keeping them in one piece.”
The Pipe stable’s decision to omit Grands Crus, now the country’s leading novice chaser following two epic battles with Big Buck’s a year ago, from the Argento Chase at Cheltenham opens up the possibility of Captain Chris running into Gold Cup contention.
Although third behind the great Kauto Star and reigning champion Long Run in the King George on Boxing Day, jockey Richard Johnson believes the Philip Hobbs-trained chaser has yet to fulfil the potential that he showed when winning last year’s Arkle Trophy.
“He feels very well in himself at home. We didn’t feel he was horrendously bad at Kempton, but we just didn’t feel he was as good as he can be,” said Johnson.
“He didn’t jump as fluently as he could do, and didn’t travel quite as nicely as he can do. We’re hoping if he can run to the King George form he’ll run a big race.
“If there is a bit of improvement there, that would be great. Obviously he needs to improve to beat Kauto Star and Long Run, but you’d like to think he’s the one they’ve got to beat in the Argento.”