ANDY Stewart is adamant. His horse of a lifetime Big Buck’s would not be attempting to concede age and weight to Annie Power in today’s Ladbrokes World Hurdle if the veteran was not in the form of his life.
He’ll have to be. Imperious in four consecutive renewals of this race before spending nearly 14 months on the sidelines with a tendon injury, Annie Power is the most formidable challenger yet to take on Big Buck’s on the track where he’s king.
Despite Stewart’s optimism, everything does appear, at first glance, to be in favour of the Irish raider ahead of today’s most anticipated clash of the week.
She’s just six-years-old – Big Buck’s is now in the veteran class at 11.
The mare receives a seven pound weight allowance because of her sex.
It does not end here.
Annie Power is trained by Willie Mullins who has been dominant form at this year’s Festival with three winners to date.
She’ll also be ridden by the mercurial Ruby Walsh – the jockey who rode Big Buck’s to so much success before he chose to ride full-time in the Emerald Isle so he could spend more time with his young family.
But Stewart’s loyalty to his old warrior does not appear to be totally misplaced. Big Buck’s has proven form over three miles while today’s trip will see Annie Power enter unknown territory – her prep race was over just two miles at Doncaster.
And while Big Buck’s lost his 18-race unbeaten record on his comeback race at the end of January in Cheltenham’s Cleeve Hill, the horse and his jockey Sam Twiston-Davies drew many positives from the experience.
“We think Big Buck’s is back to his top form, but, just like his owner, he’s getting on in age. He’s done nothing wrong at all with his preparation since he was beaten three-quarters of a length in the Cleeve. If he had won by that margin, he would not be 3-1,” explained Stewart.
“I spoke to Sir Alex Ferguson and he said if a player had been off for 42 days he would start him off in the reserves and not play him for the full 90 minutes until he’d had three or four games.
“With Big Buck’s there was nothing else you could do but put him in a competitive race over three miles giving a bit of weight (8lb) to the winner (Knockara Beau), and he’d been off for 420 days plus it was only the second time he’d been on turf.
“We are a little nervous, but there’s nothing he’s doing at home to suggest he’s 11 years of age and he’s had too much. We massively respect the mare. She’s unbeaten, but there are question marks over whether she will stay and if Big Buck’s is back to his top form, is she good enough?”
While delighted with Big Buck’s, trainer Paul Nicholls did admit to some reservations yesterday – he knows his stable star, the last of a generation that also included Kauto Star, Master Minded and Denman, will probably have to produce a career best performance if he is to prevail.
“He’ll love the ground, but he’s 11 now and, as we saw with Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle, can they be what they were?” he pondered. “I can’t get him any better. I’m not saying he’s better than he was before. The only way we will know is when he runs.”
As for Twiston-Davies, he must recover from the disappointment of The New One’s unlucky defeat in Tuesday’s Stan James Champion Hurdle. “He must go there with a great chance. He’s improved to suggest he could win a fifth,” said the 21-year-old.
As for the Annie Power camp, they, too, were guarded yesterday – their comments adding to the anticipation ahead of a clash reminiscent of the great battles of yesteryear between Kauto Star and Denman.
“Everything is fine, she’s travelled over well,” said Mullins. “She’s running over three miles for the first time. We’re hoping she’ll stay. I don’t expect her to have any problem with the drying conditions.”
And Walsh simply said: “She’s a very good mare. She has lots of potential, she has pace and oodles of stamina and we haven’t got to the bottom of her. Her form is solid. Fingers crossed the real Annie Power will show up.”
It would be foolhardy to dismiss AP McCoy’s mount At Fishers Cross. The winner of last year’s Albert Bartlett Hurdle, he returned to form when finishing ahead of Big Buck’s in the Cleeve.
The stable is in form – Rebecca Curtis won the RSA Chase yesterday with O’Faolains Boy – and McCoy says At Fishers Cross is one of his best chances of the week.
“Rebecca has been very happy with him since and believes he has turned a corner,” said the 18-times champion. “I think Big Buck’s is the one we have to beat because of the way the race is going to be run and Annie Power will have to prove that she really stays – and she will really need to stay.”
They are words that explain Andy Stewart’s confidence.