• Paul Nicholls’s hurdler wins 16th straight hurdle race
• Ruby Walsh’s mount stays on to beat Voler La Vedette
There was emotion in Paul Nicholls’s voice as he discussed Big Buck’s historic success in the World Hurdle, and it was the sound of relief as much as it was jubilation. Until that moment, the horses that Nicholls had sent to the Festival from his main yard in Ditcheat had performed poorly, but Big Buck’s is the horse that has forgotten how to lose and his win brought the confidence flooding back ahead of Kauto’s Star’s run in the Gold Cup on Friday.
Thursday’s victory was the 16th in a row for Big Buck’s, equalling the all-time record for wins over hurdles, as well as record-breaking fourth successive World Hurdle, and had the nine-year-old been harbouring an infection then the climb to the line would have brought it out.
Oscar Whisky had been expected to provide his most difficult test yet in the World Hurdle, and concern over the wellbeing of the Nicholls string saw him backed down to 4-1 as Big Buck’s set off at 5-6. Yet the challenger stopped to nothing as his stamina gave out at the bottom of the hill, and it was Voler La Vedette, a 20-1 chance, who emerged as the most significant opponent.
Andrew Lynch, Voler La Vedette’s jockey, looked to be travelling easily as the two horses ran towards the last, and switched her around the favourite to get to the stands’ rail. Her finishing effort was still not enough to get past Big Buck’s, however, and he stayed on with immense determination to maintain his run.
“This was the one race of the whole week that I wanted to win more than anything,” Nicholls said. “Of course I want to win the Gold Cup [with Kauto Star] but if I’m being realistic, just having him here [for the Gold Cup] is a privilege. But I really wanted to win this race for Big Buck’s, for Andy [Stewart, the gelding's owner] and for racing really.
“We’ve been struggling this week and we had a cough which started about five weeks ago, which is the last thing you want in the run-up to Cheltenham. The older horses have seemed to be all right and Big Buck’s was fine, but apart from Rock On Ruby [in the Champion Hurdle] it’s the slowest start to a Festival we’ve ever had.”
The tactics for Thursday’s race had been carefully planned, and Walsh took closer order with a mile left to run and then committed Big Buck’s in the straight.
“We knew that we had to ride him differently and be really aggressive,” Nicholls said, “which doesn’t really suit him as he could do with something taking him along a bit longer.
“He’s an awesome horse and the tactics were executed to perfection. It was a great ride [by Ruby Walsh] and when he pricked his ears going to the last, I knew that we were in business, because he just keeps galloping. There was no point letting it turn into a sprint.
“Ruby needed that, I needed that, the whole team needed that.”
Walsh, who started the week as the hot favourite to be the leading rider but has seen Barry Geraghty record five victories already, was winning his second race of the meeting. Like Nicholls, he will hope to complete a double in the final two feature races at the Festival when Kauto Star lines up for the Gold Cup.
“He’s never flat-out and he always has a bit left,” Walsh said. “I was confident enough that he would out-stay the others, and if I ever squeeze a bit more, he gives more, but I don’t know how much is there because I’ve never got to the bottom of him.
“I’m not dissing Black Caviar [who has won 19 consecutive races on the Flat in Australia] for one minute, but winning over six and seven furlongs on the Flat is some difference from going three miles over hurdles. Jump horses do so much more mileage, they are so much harder to get fit than Flat horses and they do so much more, so it’s an incredible performance by Paul Nicholls just to get him back here so many times.”
Having equalled the mark set by Sir Ken between 1951 and 1953 for successive wins by a hurdler, Big Buck’s will now attempt to claim the record outright in the Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree next month, a race he has also won for the past three years. He is also the clear favourite to win the World Hurdle for the fifth year in a row, in March 2013.
Big Buck’s has won a total of nine Grade One races, the same number as Florida Pearl and Hurricane Fly, and he will join Beef Or Salmon and Brave Inca in the all-time list if he can take the Liverpool Hurdle. He still has some way to go, however, before matching Kauto Star, who has 16 Grade One wins.
Big Buck’s drifted from 4-5 to 10-11 in the pre-race betting before he settled at 5-6, the biggest price he has been since taking the World Hurdle at 10-11 last season.
“I’d say the betting public have taken him to their hearts as well, and I think he ended up at a reasonable price,” Walsh said. “Big Buck’s is better than the banks.”