THAT Ruby Walsh faced more questions from wellwishers about record-seeking Big Buck’s, rather than his John Smith’s Grand National mount On His Own, is a measure of the horse’s popularity ahead of today’s date with destiny at Aintree.
“I’ll never ride another horse like him,” Walsh told racegoers at Haydock last weekend ahead of the BGC Partners Liverpool Hurdle where Big Buck’s will seek an unprecedented 17th successive win, which would see him overtake Sir Ken’s record of 16 victories that dates back to the 1950s.
The jockey also noted that virtually every photograph which he signed was of this relentless galloper rather than Kauto Star, the soon-to-be-retired dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner. “Horses like this, it’s what you get up for.”
Grey-haired Walsh showed few signs of nerves. Nor should he. Today’s race, the first of the three-day National meeting that is now a close second to the Cheltenham Festival in terms of prestige, should be a formality – there is no horse of the quality of Grands Crus who was a worthy challenger to Big Buck’s a year ago.
Yet, occasionally, Big Buck’s appears to labour in his races before being stirred into action and owner Andy Stewart is taking nothing for granted, even though the nine-year-old showed great fighting qualities to win a fourth successive Ladbrokes World Hurdle at Cheltenham last month.
“I wouldn’t say he is better at Aintree as the fields he’s been facing there haven’t been as strong as at Cheltenham,” said Stewart.
“Saying that, last year he beat Grands Crus one-and-three-quarter lengths in the World Hurdle and then five lengths on the bridle in the Liverpool Hurdle. I think Grands Crus just had a very hard race at Cheltenham, and, albeit we had a race, Big Buck’s just seems to recover so quickly.
“After this year’s World Hurdle you wouldn’t have known he had a race – he could have gone round again.
“Obviously he is feeling it because he is nine years of age now, so youth is just on his side but it’s not quite the same as when he was seven.
“One day he will turn around and say ‘I don’t want to do this any more’ but I think we are miles away from that at the moment.”
Smad Place, third to Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle, takes on the super stayer again and Alan King feels his runner has every chance of being the best of the rest.
“People say that we are attempting ‘Mission Impossible’ in pitching in Smad Place again against Big Buck’s in the Liverpool Hurdle, but, while I am one of the favourite’s biggest fans, I would like to think that nothing has stronger claims of finishing second than our fellow,” said the trainer.
“He produced a superb effort in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and could not have taken the race better.
“He impressed when schooling over six hurdles on Monday morning and this week’s rain on Merseyside is definitely a bonus. For Smad Place, the more rain the merrier.”
While Big Buck’s is the headline act, two of Yorkshire’s Cheltenham winners will look to frank their Festival form today.
Norton-based Malcolm Jefferson, who saddles According To Pete in the National, runs Cape Tribulation in the Silver Cross Handicap Hurdle – top weight of 11st 10lb is the only negative.
Jefferson’s near neighbour John Quinn saddles Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame in the Matalan Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle.
It will be an intriguing contest – Countrywide Flame’s big-race experience paid dividends at Cheltenham when he beat the heavily-backed Grumeti, who finished third.
Grumeti led before the final flight, where he made a mistake, and his trainer Alan King hopes different tactics – and softer going – will see a different result.
“They always said that he needed a bit of cut on the Flat, so I don’t think the change in the weather will inconvenience him,” said the trainer.
“Grumeti’s Triumph Hurdle third is top-class form, but we think that Liverpool will suit him better as he has plenty of speed, and we might just try and hold on to him a bit longer this time.”