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Cheltenham Icons: A look at Big Buck's' career

Paul Nicholls' golden era at the Cheltenham Festival may have been defined by other stars, but few were as reliable as the great doyen of the Stayers' Hurdle - Big Buck's.

The pride and joy of the late Andy Stewart, Big Buck's carved his name into Festival folklore with four successive wins in what was then known as the World Hurdle.

The Thursday afternoon feature in the Cotswolds was indeed 'his world' at that time - though it was never quite meant to be like that originally.

French beginnings no hint of greatness

Big Buck's didn't give any real indications of the greatness that he'd achieve in his early form in France.

He had a dozen starts in his native land during 2006/07 and only managed a couple of successes.

They both arrived at Auteuil in the spring of '07, the second being the Grade 2 Prix Amadou in May of that year, his penultimate outing on the continent.

His last run would see him finishing second in the Grade 1 Prix Alain du Breil in June before he was purchased by Andy Stewart and sent to Ditcheat to join the thriving Paul Nicholls operation.

This was of course during the era of Kauto Star and Denman, when Nicholls' base played host to the biggest names in British racing, and his latest recruit was viewed by connections as a top-class chaser in the making, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup a long-term ambition.

Smooth progress over fences

An initial season as a novice chaser went fairly well in 2007/08 for Big Buck's. He beat the Queen's excellent Barbers Shop for a winning debut at Newbury in December under Sam Thomas before finishing second upped in trip at the same course over Christmas, this time in the hands of Ruby Walsh for the first time.

Another win followed at Newbury in January but a first taste of Cheltenham in March was to prove sobering for Big Buck's as he was seventh at his maiden Festival behind Finger On the Pulse in the Jewson Novices' Handicap Chase when attempting to carry top-weight.

He ended that season on a high, winning the Grade 2 Mildmay Novices' Chase at Aintree under Walsh, but the career trajectory of Big Buck's was going to change inexorably following his next run.

Hennessy disappointment led to change of plan

Big Buck's was brought back from his summer recess in November 2008 to go for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, one of Britain's most prestigious handicaps over fences.

An injured Ruby Walsh would declare in the run-up to the race that: "Big Buck's has the ability to win the Hennessy, but his jumping has to be a worry". And so it came to pass.

After some iffy jumping in the run, Big Buck's and Thomas were coming to challenge the leaders at the last when the then-five-year-old blundered badly and unshipped his rider.

It led to possibly one of Nicholls' most inspired decisions, as he elected to send Big Buck's back over hurdles following that Newbury mishap, convinced that he wasn't a real natural over a fence.

Owner Stewart famously told the trainer he was "going bonkers" upon hearing of the plan, but it was to prove a masterstroke.

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World domination awaits

Despite a brace of wins over three-miles at Cheltenham - in a New Year's Day handicap to kick-start 2009 - and then in the Cleeve Hurdle on Festival Trials Day the same month, Big Buck's was a 6/1 chance when the tapes went up for the World Hurdle.

Even over hurdles, his technique left something to the imagination, and a mistake at the last appeared to have handed the initiative to Punchestowns for Barry Geraghty and Nicky Henderson.

However, Walsh's partner was willing, and they forged on up that famous Cotswolds hill to win, inheriting the crown from three-time winner Inglis Drever - who had suffered what proved a career-ending injury on the same afternoon Big Buck's was flailing in the Hennessy.

In the winners' enclosure afterwards, owner Stewart suggested: "If he'd won the Hennessy, he'd have been running tomorrow in the Gold Cup" before adding that his charge "wouldn't get close to Kauto Star" in that contest.

And so, while dreams of a Gold Cup in years to come were still in the minds of some, the era of Big Buck's was underway in the Stayers' hurdling division and he duly won at Aintree a month later to confirm that status.

The top name in the game

The remarkable tale of Big Buck's would eventually see him running 18 straight races over hurdles without defeat.

In that sequence he'd bag four World Hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival - a record tally - and four Liverpool Hurdles at Aintree to go along with them.

Britain's two main midwinter contest in the division - the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and Ascot's Long Walk - went his way from 2009-2011 while he also won the latter in 2012.

He only contested the Cleeve Hurdle twice more after that 2009 win, scoring in 2012 and then finishing second in 2014 in what proved the second-to-last run of his illustrious career.

By then he'd missed 420 days and was just inched out by Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross. His final appearance was the 2014 World Hurdle when he was fifth as More Of That famously beat Annie Power.

The lazy legend who proved doubters wrong

In the three Cheltenham Festival wins that followed his 2009 score, it seems hardly credible that Big Buck's returned SPs of 5/6 (twice) and 10/11. He was superior in almost every way to the opposition but, routinely, come raceday his price would start to veer close to even-money.

He had a slightly lazy racing style, particularly if getting to the front too soon but with the irrepressible Walsh on his back, that never manifested as much of a problem in his races.

In the first defence of his title in 2010, Walsh and Big Buck's stalked front-running Time For Rupert between the final two jumps - clearly going best.

They waited until the jumping was done and easily took it up on the run to the line. It was an imperious win and, at 3¼-lengths, the most decisive of their four at the Festival.

He beat Grands Crus off to win again in 2011 but in 2012 the mare Voler La Vedette for Irish trainer Colm Murphy seemed set to serve it up to Big Buck's in the final stages after the favourite had gone to the lead turning for home in what was a very truly-run race.

A real battle was engaged as the strong-travelling mare was looking menacing. Andrew Lynch switched across the track in a bid to stay clear of his main rival, but Walsh was having none of that.

The pair criss-crossed either side of the final flight, Walsh coming back to the stands-rail to look his rival in the eye late on and break her heart in what arguably was the best of Big Buck's four Festival wins given the challenge that was thrown down.

He retired a Cheltenham Festival legend and his tally of four wins in the (now) Stayers' Hurdle will take some matching.

Nicholls had never won the Stayers' before or since, but his inspired call to transform the career of Big Buck's gave rise to a fine chapter in Cheltenham Festival folklore, bonkers or not.

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