YESTERDAY morning saw the eagerly-anticipated return to action of Big Buck’s move a step closer after the staying great came through a schooling session in the hands of new jockey Sam Twiston-Davies.
Now an 11-year-old, Big Buck’s is due to reappear in the galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday, which has been reopened as the minimum ten entries were not received. With Ruby Walsh leaving his role as stable jockey to Paul Nicholls at Ditcheat, Big Buck’s was always going to have a new partner on his return from injury and the trainer and owner Andy Stewart plumped for Twiston-Davies last week.
Twiston-Davies was at Ditcheat to pop the four-time Ladbrokes World Hurdle winner over a few obstacles before he makes his comeback following 14 months off the track.
“It all went well, no problems at all,” said Nicholls. “It was just a routine school, we would do it at the start of the week before any run of his life. He jumped well and did what we expected. Sam was happy.”
Stablemate Unioniste is “almost certain” to run in Saturday’s Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster as long as the ground does not dry up dramatically.
Nicholls has all his options covered for the valuable three-mile handicap, with four of the 25 remaining possibles hailing from his Ditcheat yard. Sam Winner is Nicholls’ other major contender but he is more likely to head to Newbury on Betfair Hurdle day next month. Unioniste was well beaten in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas but had previously won at Aintree, beating Wishfull Thinking.
“If the ground stays roughly as it is, and there’s a mixed forecast, Unioniste is almost certain to run and I’ll find something else for Sam Winner in a fortnight, possibly Newbury,” said Nicholls. “I’ve just covered all our options by leaving them all in. It can dry up relatively quickly there and you never know what the weather is going to do. But my idea is to run Unioniste with Harry (Derham) taking 5lb off and then we’ll run Rocky Creek in the Argento at Cheltenham.
Nicholls’ trainers’ championship rival Nicky Henderson relies solely on Roberto Goldback. Donald McCain has two to choose from in Kruzhlinin and Our Mick. Emma Lavelle could also be double-handed with Gullinbursti and Court By Surprise.
Keith Reveley’s Night In Milan was a winner on Town Moor recently, while last year’s Grand National hero Auroras Encore could turn out again for trainer Sue Smith. Other leading contenders include Dr Richard Newland’s Mart Lane, the Dan Skelton-trained Baile Anrai, who is set to carry a feather weight of 10st, and Malcolm Jefferson’s Attaglance.
On the same Doncaster card, connections of Rock On Ruby are eager to take their chance in the Racing Post Lightning Novices’ Chase. The 2012 Champion Hurdle hero made a successful start over the bigger obstacles at Plumpton in December but his scheduled appearance on Town Moor earlier this month was scrapped due to unsuitable ground conditions. Trainer Harry Fry is satisfied with the current ground at Doncaster and is hoping the going does not change too much ahead of this Grade Two heat, which has drawn 12 contenders.
“I’ve not really had a good look at the race yet, but I’ve just spoken to the clerk of the course at Doncaster,” he said. “We will be governed by the ground, but Ruby is very well in himself. We really need to be lining up on Saturday to have him on course for a crack at the Arkle.”
Meanwhile, La Estrella will attempt to equal the record number of victories for a horse on the all-weather at his favourite hunting ground of Southwell on 28 January.
His trainer Don Cantillon has earmarked the Coral App Download From The App Store Selling Stakes as the ideal race for the 11-year-old to draw level with China Castle’s tally of 25 wins on an artificial surface. The popular gelding struck at Lingfield for the first time last week to go with his 15 wins at Southwell, seven successes at Wolverhampton and a sole victory at Great Leighs. He has also won one turf race at Pontefract.