Sunday 22 April 2018

Dearth of stayers is a real concern

We need a horse to take on Big Buck's, says Ronan Groome

Since the powers of British racing decided to make Cheltenham a four-day festival back in 2005, punters have seen Thursday, once the bustling, jam-packed Gold Cup afternoon, as the unofficial quiet day of the week.

It was inevitable that the Stayers' Hurdle, now known as the World Hurdle, would be made the main event. But the three-mile hurdle division has never taken off. Apart from the exploits of Inglis Drever, a likeable three-time winner of the race, the youngest of the four championship races has failed to make a real mark on the National Hunt scene.

Events at Newbury last Wednesday were probably not promising in this regard. As the runners were getting ready for the Long Walk Hurdle, billed as one of the feature events and seventh of an eight-race card, punters left the racecourse in their hundreds. With viewing hindered by dense fog, there seemed no point in staying. Big Buck's was going to win, and that was it. Big Buck's had won at Newbury six times before and you only had to tune in to the last half-furlong to know how the race went.

Visually, there are few other concepts in sport that signal better an outclassing of your opponent than watching a horse loom up alongside his opposition, with a motionless jockey, before going on to win in a canter, hard-held.

Big Buck's is a class act. His ten straight wins in his division reads domination. Of his performance on Wednesday, it's frightening to think that he is probably better-suited to the extra test Prestbury Park provides, and he is now as short as 4/7 for a third World Hurdle in March. He is the only horse in all the ante-post markets for Cheltenham trading at odds-on.

But how do you analyse Big Buck's stardom in the context of his stable companions Kauto Star and Denman, for example? For instance, on Wednesday the closest horse to Big Buck's on official ratings was 20lbs his inferior. That horse was Nicky Henderson's Duc De Regniere, which finished behind Big Buck's on the three previous occasions they had met by a cumulative distance of 42 lengths.

The three-mile hurdling division, always weak, has become even weaker with Big Buck's in the sphere. After last season's World Hurdle, which saw Big Buck's cruise to victory, Paul Webber who trained the runner-up Time For Rupert, said they will be going over fences next season if that 'monster' is still around.

Time For Rupert is now a novice chaser and is already a short-priced favourite for the RSA Chase. Connections of other horses, which may be potential top-class staying hurdlers, simply won't take Big Buck's on anymore.

But the staying hurdlers division will probably always be the least desirable for owners. Who wants a top class three-mile hurdler when you could have a Champion Hurdle horse? Even the mere pipedream of a Gold Cup would seem a more desirable route.

There may be only one horse capable of getting Paul Nicholls' horse off the bridle. Unlimited potential is a phrase overused in racing, but that is what Donald McCain's Peddlers Cross has shown. The Neptune Investment Hurdle winner at last year's Festival may have had the World Hurdle on his agenda early in the season, but he now looks to be Champion Hurdle bound after he was too good for Binocular on his seasonal debut at Newbury.

But given that Peddlers Cross has shown the speed he has over two miles and over further as a novice, he should have the gears to live with Big Buck's. Speculation and a long shot at this stage of course, but it would surely be a race to savour and a major fillip for the struggling staying hurdle division.

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