No regrets from Nicholls after hot streak ends for Big Buck's
Big Buck's delivered a thoroughly brave effort on his return from a tendon injury but his winning sequence was cut off at 18 as he was beaten a length in the Cleeve Hurdle here. The crowd of 18,700, a record for this fixture, kept enough faith to make him the 6/5 favourite and were roaring their approval as he landed in front over the final flight but their voices became anxious and then despairing as he tired up the famous hill and was passed by two rivals close home.
Victory went to Knockara Beau, a doughty animal better known for winning at Kelso and Carlisle, which had been beaten in all 15 of his previous visits to the cathedral of jump racing. His unsung jockey, Jan Faltejsek, punched the air as the 66/1 shot crossed the line, which seemed dangerously premature, as they won by an inch from At Fishers Cross and Tony McCoy.
Inevitably, a rueful aura hung about the Big Buck's team in the immediate aftermath. The first job for his trainer, Paul Nicholls, was to console his teenage daughter Megan, who appeared stricken by this reverse.
"I'm thrilled with him," Nicholls said. "He travelled with all his old zest, he jumped well. He just got a little tired from the back of the last. It's very testing ground. We could easily have took him out and saved him for another day but I was desperate to get another run into him before [the World Hurdle here in March]."
The trainer repeated the point that he would have liked to get another racecourse gallop into Big Buck's but was dissuaded by the fact that no local track could offer anything but saturated ground. Indeed the heavy going here made him give serious consideration to withdrawing his horse. He seemed not to regret his decision to run. "That will just improve him enormously for next time," added Nicholls.
The bookmakers agree, as Big Buck's remains favourite for the World Hurdle, which he won for a record four times before missing last year's race. Sam Twiston-Davies, taking the ride for the first time, said it had been "a real buzz" as far as the final flight and promised an even better showing in March.
The decision by Nicholls and the horse's owner, Andy Stewart, to pick Twiston-Davies rather than the stable jockey, Daryl Jacob, had been the subject of lengthy comment in recent weeks. This race cannot have concluded any debates as to whether it was a wise move.
Twiston-Davies may draw some flak for racing so close to a strong pace on a testing surface. But Nicholls shouldered responsibility for the tactics: "I did say to Sam, I wanted him to have a race today. I didn't want to hide behind a bush."
In any case, no horse was ridden with more aggression than Knockara Beau, which made much of the running before the entire field passed him at the third-last. It was a stunning moment when he forced his way back into contention.
A more significant winner, in terms of the World Hurdle, may have been Annie Power, which hacked up against mares at Doncaster, taking her unbeaten record to 10. Her connections, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh, remained tight-lipped about which race she may tackle at the Festival.
But the mare does not seem short of stamina and defeat for Big Buck's is bound to make the World Hurdle a tempting option for Mullins. Sensing this, bookmakers now have her as the 7/2 second-favourite.
Mullins, at Leopardstown, confined himself to saying: "She's getting used to travelling and hopefully three trips across to England haven't taken a lot out of her but we'll see how she comes back. The forecast is so bad, I don't know whether she's going to get back until Monday or Tuesday, but we'll see, she might get out."