BOTH Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy are used to the personal acclaim from punters as they approach the Cheltenham winner’s enclosure on their latest equine warrior – the place reserved for champions. The emotion of such occasions is what sustains these horsemen for the remaining 51 weeks of the year.
It takes a defining performance of courage and longevity for a horse to also be hero-worshipped. Arkle, Sea Pigeon, Dawn Run, Desert Orchid, Istabraq, Best Mate – winners that transcended their sport and touched the consciousness of the masses. And now Big Buck’s.
He may not have the charisma of past Festival icons, but the very fact that he returned, triumphant, and to the sound of ‘Three cheers for Big Buck’s’ from a knowledgeable St Patrick’s Day crowd – rather than ‘Ruby, Ruby, Ruby’ – spoke volumes, literally, about the victor’s place in horse racing’s pantheon of greats.
For Big Buck’s is the best National Hunt horse of the current generation, even though the Ladbrokes World Hurdle is the least prestigious of the four blue riband ‘championship’ races that provide the narrative to the Festival. This is what Gold Cup hero Long Run must aspire to.
For the record, Big Buck’s has won his last 11 races – a record of consistency and domination virtually unmatched since Arkle’s era – and still had enough in reserve to produce a career-best performance when Tom Scudamore on Grand Crus, and Paul Townend on Mourad, threw down the gauntlet.
The speed with which Big Buck’s jumped the final hurdle was decisive; phenomenal to witness close-up. It was a race-winning leap as he stretched forward, and then powered away from the flight, to compensate for Walsh dropping his whip approaching this pivotal obstacle as Grands Crus, the young pretender, briefly drew alongside before succumbing to the victor’s bottomless stamina.
It was typical of Walsh to admonish himself for “a schoolboy error”, but that should not deflect attention away from his tactical acumen, riding the eight-year-old far more prominently than usual, to surprise his opponents.
It was the calculating ride of a nerveless jockey at the peak of his powers as Big Buck’s became the first horse to win three successive World Hurdles.
Yet, while punters saluted Walsh, especially those whose betting had not gone to plan, they should spare a thought for Sam Thomas. Had he not parted company with Big Buck’s at the final fence in the 2008 Hennessy, a race won by the aforementioned Scudamore on Madison du Berlais, champion trainer Paul Nicholls may not have reverted this galloping beast of a horse back to hurdles.
Vilified at the time, perhaps Thomas is owed an apology. For, by announcing that Big Buck’s will stick to hurdles, and not contest next year’s Gold Cup, Nicholls was effectively confirming that his charge does not have the scope for steeplechasing. His charge is already odds-on for a fourth World Hurdle.
Walsh endorsed this. “Over hurdles, he is as close to unbeatable as you can be in jump racing. He is like Cigar (the American thoroughbred) on the Flat. They said Usain Bolt was unbeatable but he got beat six months ago. To win every time is extremely hard, but this is so good that he can.”
The 31-year-old Irishman makes it sound so straight-forward. If only. For great horses need great jockeys, and vice-versa. And there are no two finer exponents of the art of race riding than Walsh and McCoy.
Walsh is an artist in the saddle, the tactician who allowed Hurricane Fly to weave his way through the field to win the Champion Hurdle.
McCoy is more forceful, never happier than bowling along out in front on Albertas Run – the horse so nearly killed at Ascot last November – and setting a pace that was just too testing for Kalahari King, Ferdy Murphy’s fast-finishing stable star who has now been placed at the last four Festivals.
As Kalahari, now 10, returned to the unsaddling area, so gallant in defeat as buckets of water were poured over his sweat-covered mane, the disappointment of connections was compensated by the fact that it took a vintage McCoy ride for Albertas Run to win a second successive Ryanair Chase.
When he is in this mood, McCoy is an unmovable force – and comfort can be drawn from the fact that Kalahari King prompted another signature ride from the 15-times champion.
“I enjoyed it for the horse, because I nearly killed him at Ascot ... He never knows when he is beaten,” said McCoy in tribute to Albertas Run.
They are, however, words that also apply to this amazing jockey.
Just how, and why, does he continue to put his body on the line when he has ridden more winners than any other jump jockey in history?
He refuses to countenance defeat. Not even an idiotic protester, waving a banner on the run-in, deflected attention away from McCoy’s concentration as Kalahari King was repelled.
It was an unfortunate incident that Scudamore used to illustrate the dominance of Big Buck’s over Grands Crus who may now go chasing. He drew some comfort from knowing that he has played his part, inadvertently, in the Big Buck’s story (in the Hennessy of 2008) before offering this assessment.
“If they ran the World Hurdle a hundred times, Big Buck’s would probably win 99 times – irrespective of the pace or ground,” he reflected.
“The one time we might win would be if the man with the placard was standing in the way of Big Buck’s.
“And I use the word ‘might’ advisedly...”
In essence, this is why Big Buck’s – rather than Walsh, the Cheltenham Festival’s most successful jockey – was the Festival’s 2011 headline act.
So consistent, so strong, this is a horse who will be front-page news if he is beaten. And do not bet on that happening for some time yet.