BIG Buck’s saw his unbeaten run over hurdles end when he was relegated into a narrow third by shock 66-1 winner Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross in the galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Paul Nicholls’ champion staying hurdler had been off the track for 420 days with injury, but the 11-year-old was still the 6-5 favourite to beat a classy field in the Grade Two contest.
New jockey Sam Twiston-Davies surprisingly adopted more forceful tactics than had been the case in the past and the pair found themselves in front with fully a mile to run.
Boston Bob, Reve De Sivola and At Fishers Cross all stacked up behind him, with Knockara Beau going almost unnoticed as Big Buck’s began to tire after the last but it was George Charlton’s Cheltenham veteran who began to close.
Tony McCoy galvanised At Fishers Cross and, along with Knockara Beau, claimed Big Buck’s 100 yards from the line with Knockara Beau getting the verdict by a short head.
Nicholls said of Big Buck’s: “I’m delighted with him, he travelled with all his old zest and jumped well, but he just got a little tired after the back of the last.
“It’s very testing ground and we could easily have taken him out and saved him for another day, but I was desperate to get a run into him before the World Hurdle.
“This was only the second time he’d been on grass since his injury. I wanted another racecourse gallop but the ground wouldn’t allow it.
“I’m thrilled, I would obviously have liked to have won, but that will put him bang on for his next run.
“I said to Sam to be positive on him and if he got tired, he got tired.”
Twiston-Davies said: “When he takes them on again in the World Hurdle he’ll run a massive race.
“Everyone expects so much of this horse because he’d won 18 on the bounce but he’d had a year off and he needed the run.
“He’ll come on from that today, he’ll run a massive race in the World Hurdle, I promise you that – he felt very special, as we all know he is.”
Meanwhile, The Rainbow Hunter is set for a second crack at the Grand National after springing a 25-1 surprise in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster.
Kim Bailey’s charge unseated his rider at the Canal Turn on the first circuit in the Aintree showpiece last year and connections would like to have another try.
All roads lead back to the Liverpool course after he took the three-mile handicap. Solix made the running until the second last where Nick Scholfield asked The Rainbow Hunter for his effort. Although Baile Anrai tried to mount a challenge he was still a length and a half down at the line. Unioniste, the well-backed 11-4 favourite, was eight lengths away third.
Scholfield said: “I was a bit worried before racing as the ground was tacky, but the rain we’ve had earlier helped. He ran in the National last year and I suppose the owners will want to go there again.”
Today at Leopardstown, Hurricane Fly faces a “hell of a test” in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle, concedes Willie Mullins.
It emerged on Friday that the brilliant ten-year-old had worked badly by his exalted standards during the week, with a bruised foot emerging as the reason.
The 18-times Grade One winner is reportedly back on track, but the scare, combined with big performances expected from Jezki and Our Conor, has trainer Mullins apprehensive as Hurricane Fly looks to emulate Istabraq with four victories in the Irish Champion.
He said: “He put in a middling bit of work the other day, which he has never done before. We couldn’t find anything wrong with him for a good while afterwards, but the girl that looks after him noticed he seemed to be feeling a leg and we discovered a little bruise. We took off the shoe, cleaned it and put it in a poultice overnight.
“It’s a concern, although he appears to be in good form now.
“It’s going to be a hell of a test for him.”