Once there's an emotional attachment to something, anything, the fact that its powers are on the wane becomes harder to accept. The idea that Roger Federer can still win multiple Grand Slams, Robert De Niro remains selective about which film roles he accepts or 'The Simpsons' is as funny as it's ever been would all have long been dismissed but for the loyalty attached to the respective subjects.
There is a danger of Big Buck's being treated the same way. In some respects, it's certainly surprising that response to his Cleeve Hurdle defeat hasn't been more morose: after all, this was an 18-run winning streak being snapped by Knockara Beau, the ultimate plucky loser who was taking his Cheltenham record to a rather telling one-from-16.
Perhaps it's sentimentality that keeps Big Buck's atop the World Hurdle market. Or maybe it's a genuine triumph for context: there are legitimate excuses for what transpired on Festival Trials Day.
After the race trainer Paul Nicholls said:
"Sam rode him exactly how we had discussed beforehand. The horse travelled well, jumped well, quickened going to the last, and then got tired on very bad ground on the run-in."
Now trainer quotes should never be treated as the final word on matters. Here is no different, as Nicholls' take somewhat smacks of putting a brave face on things, but he has struck on the main points.
Given the controversy that surrounded Sam Twiston-Davies being given the mount on Big Buck's, you might have expected more indignation to come his way after an ill-judged ride. Nicholls' comments provide mitigation, if not full vindication as the fact remains that riding a horse that has been off for so long, in such an aggressive manner and on such testing ground is unlikely to see it to best effect.
So a lack of fitness allied to a reportedly less-than-perfect preparation (Nicholls has long said that Big Buck's would ideally have been given another racecourse gallop before the Cleeve) and an incautious ride explains much of the Cheltenham run, but it doesn't completely bury the notion that Big Buck's, now 11, just isn't the horse he was.
The simple answer to that, of course, is that he doesn't have to be. Big Buck's has a peak Timeform rating of 176+ and has had to run right up to that figure precisely never (it comes, incidentally, from his effortless success over Grands Crus in the 2011 Liverpool Hurdle). This year's rivals are almost totally different from the fields he's trounced in the past but in all likelihood, uncertain runner Annie Power aside, none would command a performance above 170 to see them off. The question therefore evolves from 'Is Big Buck's as good as he was?' to 'Is Big Buck's within half a stone of the horse he was?'. Current odds have it as about a 30% chance that he is. Those odds are worth taking.
The field at large may not provide value, though it'd be wrong to say that there aren't overpriced individuals. As it happens, most of those happen to be either trained by Nicholls or owned by JP McManus.
From the Nicholls yard we have Salubrious and Saphir de Rheu. Both are unexposed, especially so over three miles. However with their yard (and owners in the case of Saphir de Rheu) already harbouring the favourite other avenues may be explored at the Festival and their exchange prices reflect that.
For McManus there is both At Fishers Cross and More of That. The Cleeve helped show that, in terms of ability at least, At Fishers Cross has few superiors in this division: he came from a much less promising position, after a much less fluent round of jumping, in going down by just a short head to Knockara Beau. Unfortunately, a better display of hurdling cannot be taken as a given with At Fishers Cross, who reportedly has long-standing issues which hinder his jumping. Prices around the 14.013/1 mark before the Cleeve would have made the risk worthwhile: it isn't at the current 8.415/2.
Which leaves us with More of That. Despite connections he's been unfashionable from the start: he won a Folkestone maiden hurdle at 20/1 on his debut and was as big as 3/1 running off a handicap mark of 130 at Wetherby in November. Unusually for a Jonjo O'Neil charge, what he's shown on the track has been in stark contrast to his starting prices: four runs, four wins, each more impressive than the last.
It's More of That's latest run, in the Relkeel Hurdle in December, that makes the most compelling case. Salubrious, who shaped a clear second best in the Long Walk a week later, got the run of things in that small-field affair yet had no convincing answer to More of That's powerful finish. Considering it was just his fourth start and the near-certainty that three miles will suit him better, it's fair to say that More of That's potential lies in advance of anything else besides Big Buck's. You're advised to back him at 11.010/1 before he makes that even more obvious.
The World Hurdle was never likely to be straightforward irrespective of what happened in the Cleeve: as a returning 11-year-old, Big Buck's would inevitably carry some doubts over to his main test in March. Behind all the aggressive tactics and severely-testing ground, there was encouragement there- certainly enough to justify having him onside at 3.39/4. Power will one day transfer away from him, though, and if it's to be this year the hugely exciting More of That has the potential to perhaps fashion his own period of dominance in the post-Big Buck's era.
Back Big Buck's @ 3.39/4 & More of That @ 11.010/1 in the World Hurdle