The Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle, ran over 3 miles, held one of the most eagerly anticipated returns of recent years, the return of hurdle legend Big Buck’s. At Cheltenham, a course he knows so well, he was hoping to recapture his winning ways. There was many obstacles in his way however, including a 420-day absence to overcome and lack of fitness against race fit rivals. Big Buck’s was looking to stretch his winning run to 19 wins over the last five years, and rewrite his name in the history books.
Could an 11-year-old really return to the peak of his ability and hold of the challenge of many younger rivals? He had many worthy competitors against him, including last year’s Albert Bartlett winner At Fishers Cross, Long Walk Hurdle winner Reve De Sivola and long shots Quartz De Thaix and Knockara Beau. There was also an interesting Irish contender in the form of the Willie Mullins trained Boston Bob. It shaped up to be a superb race, and the whole racing world held its breath hoping to see their superstar back in the winners enclosure.
The ending however, was not one that many had hoped to see with Big Buck’s finishing a gallant third. The winner came as a huge shock to everyone, the 66-1 outsider Knockara Beau. The race was run at a quick pace with Knockara Beau making the early running, while the other jockeys were happy to sit and bide their time. Knockara Beau and Quartz De Thaix cut out the running for most of the race, however on the second circuit Big Buck’s jockey Sam Twiston Davies started moving his horse up to challenge the long-time leaders. The plan was clearly to ride the horse positively, and after 3 out Big Buck’s had been sent on and was leading at the top of the hill. He came there travelling very smoothly and looked to have some of his rivals on the stretch coming down the hill.
It came as a surprise to many that he was sent on so early, especially on heavy ground when there was still plenty more racing to be done. At the turn for home, there was virtually 5 in line behind Big Bucks, all seemed to be travelling well enough to hold a chance. Big Buck’s was sent on and led over the last, where Quartz De Thaix tired and fell away, as did Reve De Sivola and Boston Bob. It looked like the race was his as he galloped up the famous Cheltenham hill, as he did for his unprecedented 4 World Hurdle victories.
However it was not to be, with Big Buck’s tiring on the run-in, Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross outstayed him and the former claimed his biggest success of his career. The delight was clear on Jan Faltejsek’s face, as he punched the air in delight crossing the line. It was a shock result, one of the biggest in recent years, however Knockara Beau is an admirable horse who has finished placed in many top races and finally got what he deserved, a big race success.
Big Buck’s ran an admirable race, only tiring late on and should be spot on for the festival, in which he will bid to win a fifth straight World Hurdle. It was a much improved effort from the third horse too, At Fishers Cross. This horse was one many fancied to take Big Buck’s title away this season come March, as promised so much in his novice days last season, beating The New One before going to score impressively at both the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals. He has had his problems with his jumping before now, and this had been highlighted in two below par efforts this season. Yesterday however showed a glimpse of his novice hurdling days, and if he can recapture last season’s form and sort his jumping out, he will be a real force in the staying hurdle division for the coming years.
Reve De Sivola seemed to run slightly below par on ground he usually revels in, finishing a well beaten fourth. He did have a hard race last time out when winning the Long Walk hurdle at Ascot, and those exertions possibly took the edge off him yesterday. He is usually an admirable, consistent horse who will be wearing his heart on his sleeve again come March. Boston Bob was mightily disappointing after being well backed on ground that should have suited him perfectly. He was always out the back and eventually trailed in a well beaten last, on his hurdling efforts so far he looks far short of what’s required in a race of this calibre, so his claims of landing a World Hurdle success have to be questioned.
It was a race that promised so much for the legend of the staying hurdling ranks, however the fairy tale ending did not happen, with Big Buck’s beaten and subsequently losing his 18 race unbeaten run. He was required to strip plenty fitter for this run however, and it can be assured that Nicholls will have him cherry ripe at the Festival to once again defend his crown that he has made his own. Take nothing away from the winner, who thoroughly deserved this victory after having so many near misses in his career. He is now Gold Cup bound, and if he turns up in the same heart as yesterday I wouldn’t rule him out of running a massive race.