Just like last year, the showpiece Grade One event has been saved from Ascot's abandoned meeting earlier in the month and moved to Berkshire.
Still only seven, Big Buck's extended his unbeaten British run over timber to nine with another effortless victory in last month's Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury on his reappearance.
Ominously for his five rivals, Nicholls thinks he is now in even better form. "He's really well. He was just getting a bit lazy before Newbury but the run will have done him the world of good," said Nicholls, who has engaged the services of Tony McCoy, in whose honour the race has been renamed, although the champion must be passed fit to ride following a fall at Leopardstwon yesterday.
Nicholls added: "I think he's probably as well now as he's ever been. We're not even thinking about sending him back over fences at this stage, we'll just get this year out of the way This is our target and then it will be Cheltenham and Aintree in the spring. Next year is a different year and we'll see what happens then."
The highlight of yesterday's action at Leopardstown was Pandorama's rise to the top of the Irish staying division as he recorded decisive victory in the Grade One Lexus Chase.
Long regarded by connections as a horse of some potential and impressive in novice hurdles and chases, Pandorama still had questions to answer after being pulled up in last month's Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. But he answered every one of them, finishing six lengths clear of British raider Money Trix and the giant Joncol. Pandorama, who was giving jockey Paul Carberry a fourth victory in the Christmas highlight, sat just off the habitual leader The Listener and looked primed to pounce before jumping the third-last slightly slowly. Quickly recovering, he led before the last and quickened right away to earn quotes of around 16-1 for the totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.
"We are back on track and will aim for the (Irish) Hennessy back here if he stays right," said trainer Noel Meade. "We are still dreaming of the Gold Cup. He worked very well at Dundalk last Thursday and had some good horses behind him. We'll enjoy today. We know he goes left-handed and that was only his fifth run over fences so he is still improving.
"I wouldn't run him on good ground. It has to be yielding or softer."
Pandorama was sent off the 7-2 joint-favourite along with Cooldine, who was pulled-up, while fellow Willie Mullins' inmate Kempes unseated McCoy, leaving the jockey with a sore left wrist.He later left the course with his wrist packed in ice.
There was still reason for Mullins and jockey Paul Townend to smile, starting when French recruit So Young (7-4 favourite) came 16 lengths clear hard-held in the Madigans Maiden Hurdle. Mullins' Mourad then swooped late in the Grade Two woodiesdiy.com Christmas Hurdle. The 7-4 favourite hardly gave his supporters a moment of worry.
Mourad was clipped to 14-1 from 20s by the sponsors for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
12.30 Smad Place
2.10 Al Ferof (nap)
2.45 Regal Approach
3.20 Big Buck's
4.20 Welsh Inlet
4.50 Sharp Shoes
5.20 Fifth In Line
6.50 Buddy Miracle
7.20 Iron Condor
7.50 Desert Strike
2.35 High On A Hill
3.10 Mighty Clarets
High On A Hill
• Tomorrow's jumps meeting at Haydock has been abandoned due to a frozen track. It failed an inspection yesterday