PAUL Nicholls believes Oscar Whisky could represent the toughest task to date for Big Buck's in Thursday's Ladbrokes World Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Big Buck's has dominated the staying division for the last three seasons, bagging three World Hurdles, and arrives here on a 15-race unbeaten run.
However, while the likes of Punchestowns, Time For Rupert and Grands Crus have fallen short in their challenges, Nicholls is aware of the threat posed by Nicky Henderson's Oscar Whisky as he tackles three miles for the first time.
The Ditcheat handler still retains ultimate faith in Big Buck's, though, and the nine-year-old will write his name into the record books if he can land a fourth triumph in the Grade One feature.
"Big Buck's is in great order and comes good at this time of year," said Nicholls.
"He keeps winning and he has beaten all of them except Oscar Whisky - I have a feeling he could be his toughest opponent to date.
"He's the obvious one, but he's going to have to be very good to beat Big Buck's and to stay very well.
"You'd have to say Big Buck's was my banker of the meeting as he's such a brilliant horse and I think he looks better in his coat than ever.
"Oscar Whisky will be a very interesting opponent as he has been impressive in his races at Cheltenham.
"He is bred to stay three miles so it's going to be very good race."
Henderson admits there must be a question mark over Oscar Whisky's ability to stay the World Hurdle trip.
The seven-year-old finished third in last year's Champion Hurdle before winning the Aintree Hurdle over half a mile further, prompting connections to step up to the staying races.
Henderson said: "He's not a Champion Hurdle horse. I know he was third last year and he's improved a bit as well, but we've got to try this race.
"He's very good, in really good shape and it's all a matter of if he stays.
"If he does, then we're capable of giving Big Buck's a race."
David Pipe saddled Grands Crus to chase home Big Buck's last term and with that horse now running over fences, he relies upon Dynaste to fly the Pond House flag.
The six-year-old has twice chased home Big Buck's this season, finishing a 19-length fourth when trying to make all of the running at Ascot before narrowing the distance to seven lengths when second in the Cleeve Hurdle.
Pipe said: "He was very impressive at Haydock and we tried to run the finish out of Big Buck's at Ascot, which didn't work, so we tried different tactics at Cheltenham and he ran a lot better.
"He's a good horse, he is only six and is improving - if he can finish in the first three it will be a great run.
"He's got to perform up to his Cleeve Hurdle form or improve a little to be in the frame, but hopefully he can.
"I can't see a reason why he'll beat Big Buck's, but it won't stop us trying.
"He's another we're looking forward to sending novice chasing next season."
Voler La Vedette is one of the leading Irish-trained hopes, despite suffering a shock reverse at the hands of Zaidpour last time.
Winner of her first three starts this term, including the Grade One Hatton's Grace Hurdle, she had twice beaten Willie Mullins' Mourad, who again tries his luck.
Trainer Colm Murphy said: "It's all good with her. Everything's in order with her and she seems well.
"I've my fingers crossed she'll run a big race and I'm hoping for the best."
Alan King fields a lively outsider in Smad Place, winner of an Ascot Grade Two on his belated seasonal return in January.
He has since been second under top weight in a competitive Ascot handicap.
"Smad Place is in great nick, and my only reservation is the trip," the Barbury Castle handler told his website, www.alankingracing.co.uk.
"But I am optimistic that he will stay, and Timeform say that the form of his last run at Ascot would put him in the top three.
"I hope that they are right."
Mourad is one of four runners for Mullins in the World Hurdle, but the trainer thinks Thousand Stars represents his best chance in the race.
"Thousand Stars has good form around Cheltenham and he'll like the ground, so hopefully he gives us our best chance of shaking up the top horse," said Mullins.
"He made a couple of mistakes in Leopardstown the last day but other than that, he ran a right good race."
Former Festival winner Mikael D'Haguenet returns to the scene of his 2009 victory in what is now the Neptune Novices' Hurdle, while the in-form So Young also takes his chance.
"The other three look well held and we're just hoping for the best with them, hoping they might get some place money," Mullins added.
"Mikael D'Haguenet is a winner around here, Mourad has form here as well.
"So Young ran well at the Festival last year, so fingers crossed."