AS record-breaking racehorses, Bula and Big Buck’s were polar opposites.
The former – trained by the genius that was Fred Winter – was a dual Champion Hurdle winner in the early 1970s, the winner of 13 consecutive races, before switching to steeplechase fences with considerable distinction until injury claimed his life.
Only heavy ground prevented him winning the 1975 Gold Cup under a young John Francome.
The latter was a promising chaser, until deposing Sam Thomas at the final fence in the 2008 Hennessy Gold Cup, before being switched back to hurdles – one of the more inspired decisions taken by champion trainer Paul Nicholls.
Since then, Big Buck’s has been invincible. The winner of 13 consecutive races, including a hat-trick of World Hurdle titles at the Cheltenham Festival that have reignited the public’s intrigue with long-distance races over the smaller obstacles, he will eclipse the mighty Bula if he wins today’s Lough Derby Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot and makes it 14 victories on the bounce.
An imposing horse, the eight-year-old has won this race – named after his now retired rival Lough Derg, who has had such a great impact on the career of Tom Scudamore – for the last two years.
The caveat is that both renewals have been staged at Newbury, a left-handed track, because weather forced the abandonment of the Ascot card.
Having never raced right-handed since his arrival in Britain in 2007, Big Buck’s enters uncharted territory today against a select field headed by Restless Harry, the mount of Bingley-based Henry Oliver, and who is reverting back to hurdles after two defeats in novice chasers after winning Wetherby’s John Smith’s Hurdle in October. Also lining up is Dynaste, who is seeking to fill the void left by Lough Derg at David Pipe’s stable.
That said, Ruby Walsh, who has ridden Big Buck’s to 11 of his 13 consecutive victories is not perturbed by Ascot’s right-handed configuration and uphill finish.
“I can’t see going right-handed being a problem, I suppose there is new blood in there with Dynaste, but it is a big step up from a handicap to a Grade One race,” said Walsh.
“He’s probably more confident in himself now, he’s got used to winning and is more adept at going forward and being in front.
“He’s not nearly as difficult a ride as maybe he was in the old days, he’s far more straightforward and, hopefully, he carries on.”
Nicholls reports his gelding to be in rude health.
“It’s a galloping track, which will suit him very well, and he’s come on for the Newbury run,” said Nicholls. “Daryl (Jacob) schooled him yesterday morning and he was mad fresh. He’s in really good order.
“He’ll get beat one day – that’s what racing is all about. You get nervous as there is quite a lot of pressure with these horses. You look at the betting and you think he’s a certainty, but horses do get beat and I always thought one day he’ll get himself beat.”
As well as emulating Bula and closing in on Sir Ken’s record of 16 straight hurdles wins in the 1950s, victory today would take the career earnings of Big Buck’s past the £1m mark.
The betting suggests the main threat to Big Buck’s is Pipe’s Dynaste, a hugely impressive winner of the valuable ‘Fixed Brush’ Handicap Hurdle at Haydock last month.
The same team saddled the smart Grands Crus to win the corresponding race last season but he came up short against Big Buck’s at Cheltenham and Aintree in the Spring and is now the country’s top novice chaser.
“We’re nervously looking forward to it,” said Andy Stewart, who owns Big Buck’s.
“I know last season David and the team were trying to think of the best way to ride Grands Crus to beat Big Buck’s and I’m sure they’ll be doing the same again.
“I’m sure they are not going to want to go off fast and set it up for Big Buck’s, but then it will not be easy to beat him from off the pace either.”
Just as it has been for the past two seasons, Big Buck’s will make his final racecourse appearance this weekend before heading back to the Festival in March. “Win, lose or draw on Saturday, he won’t be running again before we go to Cheltenham,” Stewart continued.
“We’ll give him a nice break and then build him back up so he’s at peak fitness for the World Hurdle again. If all goes well there, I’d imagine he’ll then go to Aintree and that will be his four runs for the season.
“We wouldn’t think about Punchestown as he doesn’t really like to travel – he gets nervous going down the road to Wincanton sometimes!”
Meanwhile, the highly-regarded Zaynar, who finished 12th to Big Buck’s in this year’s World Hurdle race, returned from the wilderness to run his rivals ragged in the Grade Two totepool Novices’ Chase at Ascot yesterday.
A Triumph Hurdle winner in 2009 for Nicky Henderson, the grey lost his way and was sent to Nick Williams in a bid to rejuvenate him.
One mistake down the back straight aside, Zaynar was virtually foot-perfect, leading throughout to finish nine lengths clear under Saltburn jockey James Reveley.
“He’s always been my favourite novice chaser in the yard and Nick and his wife Jane have done a great job of sweetening him up,” said Reveley after the horse’s first victory since November 2009.
“He saw something at one down the back and nearly put the breaks on completely but he’s so economical at his fences and knows just the right height to get at them.”
Zaynar is 16-1 for the Jewson Novices Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.