McCoy hopes for the all-clear as Big Buck's steps into limelight

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TWO years ago, Big Buck's suffered the ignominy of a final fence fall in the Hennessy Gold Cup that was to change racing history. The equine giant reverted to smaller obstacles before winning back-to-back World Hurdles.

Today, the seven-year-old returns to Newbury, scene of the Hennessy heartbreak, for the re-arranged Long Walk Hurdle before he attempts to join the great Inglis Drever as a three-time winner of Cheltenham's premier championship race for staying hurdlers.

He is odds-on to win both today and at Cheltenham in March before trainer Paul Nicholls prepares to send his stable star chasing again ahead of a possible tilt at the Gold Cup.

For, while illustrious stablemates Kauto Star and Denman are in the twilights of their respective careers, Big Buck's is still relatively young – even though he has been one of racing's flagbearers for three years.

It is also appropriate that the owner of Big Buck's, Andy Stewart, should sponsor and name today's feature in honour of 15-time champion jockey AP McCoy's victory in the prestigious BBC' Sports Personality of the Year award.

McCoy is, understandably, honoured to be riding a horse with so much potential – he was more perturbed at the original abandonment of the Long Walk Hurdle, and missing a rare chance to ride Big Buck's in place of the injured Ruby Walsh, than his Sports Personality chances 24 hours later.

However, the champion will first have to pass the doctor after parting company with Kempes at the second-last fence in the feature Lexus Chase at Leopardstown yesterday, damaging his left wrist in the tumble.

While McCoy typically opted not to go to hospital, he will have to get the go-ahead from the doctor if he is to partner Big Buck's.

"Tony McCoy has left the track with his left wrist packed in ice," said Dr Walter Halley, medical officer for the Irish Turf Club. "He's not going to go for an X-ray, he's going to fly straight home. He will have to be cleared by the doctor to ride back in Britain."

Despite the injury scare, Nicholls has issued an upbeat bulletin ahead of today's six-runner race in which Nicky Henderson's Duc De Regniere, the mount of Malton-born Andrew Tinkler, could be the biggest danger to Big Buck's.

"He's really well. He was just getting a bit lazy in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury last month, but the run will have done him the world of good," said Nicholls.

"I think he's probably as well now as he's ever been. This is our target and then it will be Cheltenham and Aintree in the Spring. Next year is a different year and we'll see what happens then."

Another intriguing runner in a select field is Restless Harry, who will be ridden by Bingley-based Henry Oliver.

The pride of Robin Dickin's Stratford-upon-Avon stable, he was a smart staying novice last term and started this season off well with thirds at Chepstow and in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot. However Restless Harry must bounce back from a moderate seventh behind Karabak at Cheltenham last time.

"There's an old saying 'never don't run because of one'," said Dickin. "Big Buck's is an absolute champion and would be a huge obstacle for any hurdler in Europe. But sometimes fantastic horses do get beaten – not that in any way am I expecting it today!

"If Big Buck's wasn't running, I think the other four would be worried about us."

A quality card will also see Nicholls run his highly-promising novice hurdler Al Ferof – second to the precocious Cue Card in the Cheltenham Bumper – in the Challow Hurdle.

Described by Nicholls as the best Bumper horse that he has ever trained, a bold statement worthy of note, Al Ferof is on a retrieval mission after falling at Cheltenham in his last outing. Conditional Harry Skelton – son of show-jumping legend Nick – takes the ride.

Over in Ireland, today's highlight will be the return of Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Big Zeb in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase. While trainer Colm Murphy is genuinely concerned about the state of the heavy ground at Leopardstown, he simply needs to get his horse back out on the track ahead of his Cheltenham defence.

"Ideally, he wouldn't be running on ground this heavy, I'd prefer it to be better but unfortunately it's the same for all of them," said a cautious Murphy.

There were no such ground concerns yesterday when the Noel Neade-trained mudlark Pandorama, pulled-up in last month's Hennessy Gold Cup, won the valuable Lexus Chase under former Grand National-winning jockey Paul Carberry.

A two-time winner of Grade One novice events last season, seven-year-old Pandorama announced his arrival in the jumping elite as he saw off the durable Money Trix by six lengths.

He is now a 10-1 chance for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, though soft going is a pre-requisite and Meade maybe tempted to allow his horse to gain more confidence over fences before challenging for racing's blue riband race.

Pandorama versus Big Buck's for the 2012 Gold Cup? Do not bet against it. For these two emerging stars are, in many respects, the future of jump racing on both sides of the Irish Sea.