Big Buck’s set for real test in pursuit of fourth crown

THERE won’t be a dry eye in the house if the unbelievable Big Buck’s can become the first horse ever to land the World Hurdle for four consecutive years. If he does win, it will be his sixteenth victory on the bounce and he’ll equal Sir Ken’s record that has stood since the 1950s.

So, can Paul Nicholls’ nine-year-old stable star finally be beaten? Well, the bookmakers are certainly taking no chances with Coral as short as 1/2. If you are happy to back him at odds-on then Paddy Power are prepared to lay you 4/7. That may not look so short around 3.30pm this afternoon!

One thing that is for sure is that Big Buck’s faces his toughest test to date with certainly the best field in terms of quality he has ever met over timber. Grade One winning hurdlers Oscar Whisky, THOUSAND STARS, Voler La Vedette and Mikael D’haguenet are joined by the fast-improving pair Dynaste and So Young in a mouth-watering clash.

Now, the key to this year’s renewal is that Big Buck’s has more than one genuine challenger and for that reason I think he can genuinely be beaten. In fact, there is every chance that he may not even trade as favourite at one point in-running on Betfair. Yes, his running style has been well-documented, but Oscar Whisky will travel ominously well through to the second last and I wouldn’t be surprised if the pair were separated by very little in the market. That could well be the time for backers to get with Big Buck’s on Betfair and layers to get against Oscar Whisky who definitely has stamina concerns.

The betting without Big Buck’s market catches my eye the most as it depends on who is actually ridden to beat the favourite and who is ridden with constraint to come second. Dynaste was a warm second favourite behind Big Buck’s at Ascot earlier in the season, but an aggressive ride meant he failed to even make the frame.

For that reason, I’m very interested in Willie Mullins’ THOUSAND STARS each-way at 9/2 with Coral. He loves it around here having won the County Hurdle a couple of years ago and he finished a gallant fourth to Hurricane Fly in last year’s Champion Hurdle. Paul Townend takes the ride on the eight-year-old who flew home at Aintree over two and half miles last season before going on to win over a trip in excess of three miles in France.

I expect Dynaste and then Oscar Whisky to serve up serious challenges to the favourite, but the advantage may sit with the horse who challenges late and last and that could well be a fast-finishing Thousand Stars. He could easily beat Big Buck’s, but the safest option may well be to side with him without the favourite.

Sporting Index have a couple of interesting match bets and reckon Oscar Whisky will finish 2 – 3 ½ lengths in front of Dynaste. That may well be the case, but if pushed I’d rather be a seller and side with the horse guaranteed to stay. Big Buck’s is expected to finish ½ - 2 lengths in front of the entire field and, as crazy as it seems, I’d rather be a seller there too. If he does win, I’m not sure he’ll streak clear of this field. Hurricane Fly showed on Tuesday that Champions can have an off day, although you have to go back to November 2008 to find his last off day and that was over fences!

It’s paid in recent seasons to concentrate on those classier horses towards the top of the weights in the Kim Muir with Character Building (2009) and Ballabriggs (2010) both shouldering top weight to victory. In fact, last year’s runaway winner Junior still had 11 stone 6lbs in the saddle, so it’s worth concentrating on those at the top of the racecard.

Up The Beat is interesting on the back of a really decent run at Punchestown last month, but I’d like to see the Mullins team in better form before siding with him. Exmoor Ranger, the other joint top weight, is respected but will need to brush up his jumping.

The one that immediately catches the eye is SUNNYHILLBOY, next in the list and one with an excellent course record. He was only just touched off in the Festival Plate a few years ago having won over hurdles here. The money was down on him when he slightly disappointed here in December, but he has since bounced back with a spin over hurdles. This has definitely been the target all season and I fancy he’ll go close at 8/1 with Paddy Power.

As for the rest, I’ll also be having a few quid on Irish raider START ME UP, who can be backed each-way at 16/1. Charlie Swan trains this fellow for the Gigginstown Stud who hit the cross bar here yesterday with First Lieutenant and Four Commanders.

Nina Carberry takes the ride on the eight-year-old who shaped pretty well last time. He was travelling well when badly hampered and pulled up behind Bobs Worth in last season’s Albert Bartlett and looks to relish the good ground he’ll get tomorrow.

POINTERS...

THOUSAND STARS e/w 3.20pm Cheltenham*
SUNNYHILLBOY e/w 4.40pm Cheltenham
START ME UP e/w 4.40pm Cheltenham
*Without Big Buck’s