Some of the Cheltenham Festival’s most celebrated horses have earned their stripes in the prestigious World Hurdle.
The three-mile staying hurdle race, which is the highlight of St Patrick’s Day, is famous for producing multiple winners that have warmed the hearts of the racing nation with some spectacular moments.
The first real superstar of the race was the brilliant to watch Baracuda, who won the race twice for trainer Francois Doumen and owner JP McManus in 2002 and 2003. His racing style made him an instant hit with the UK public; he was a real character, a horse that rarely found much off the bridle but always travelled with such class in his races that he would only be produced until after the last hurdle. The French raider also finished second in 2004 and 2005, but passed the superstar baton on to Inglis Driver in that 2005 race.
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Much like Baracuda, Howard Johnson’s charge had a unique way of winning his races but did so in a far different style when landing the record-breaking three victories in 2005, 2007 and 2008. He always looked in trouble with a mile to run to found an extraordinary amount off the bridle to surge away up the Cheltenham hill. On his third and highly emotional third win he beat Kasbah Bliss, who was ironically trained by Doumen.
Many people probably envisaged Johnson’s horse as the best they were ever likely to see in the staying hurdle division but then came Big Buck’s.
Last year’s stylish victory was his third consecutive win in the race and Paul Nicholls’ charge is on to make Festival history this year by winning a fourth – he’s heavily odds-on to do so.
If only Baracude, Inglis Driver and Big Buck’s were lining up together this year – now that would be a race of mouth-watering proportions. Nevertheless, if Nicholls’ star can complete the four-timer, you can guarantee there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
The interest in the World Hurdle has increased ten-fold over the last 10 years due to the achievements of some outstanding horses. One of them, Big Buck’s, is back this year to win his fourth consecutive title and could become the first horse to do so. Surpassing the records of the outstanding Inglis Driver, who won the race three times.
Paul Nicholls’ pride and joy has been a revelation since switching from fences after his rider was unseated at the last in the 2008 Hennessy Gold Cup. No-one would have predicted that 15 races later Big Buck’s would be unbeaten over hurdles and would become a legend of National Hunt racing.
His preparation this season has gone as smoothly as ever and anyone that had taken the even money on him securing his fourth title has never had a moments worry thus far. He is now a best priced 4/7 shot.
Easy wins in the Sportingbet Long Distance Hurdle, Lough Derg Long Walk Hurdle and Cleeve Hurdle have all enhanced his aspirations for a fourth World Hurdle. All of which were won with the ease of a horse who had no more than a routine gallop.
Every year a rival has progressed through the ranks with the promise of dethroning the king but eventually gets put in his place come the race. Grands Crus came the closest of any of them in last season’s renewal and it’s up to Nicky Henderson’s Oscar Whisky this year to do what no horse has done in 15 races – beat him.
Last year’s Champion Hurdle third has been stepped up in trip this year and much like Big Buck’s has hardly had to produce any sweat to win his prep races. After falling at the last when galloping all over Overturn in the Coral Hurdle, the seven-year-old has recorded two wins at Cheltenham and a cosy success on the Polytrack at Kempton.
He is yet to be run over three miles but the element of the unknown as made him the only challenger to Big Buck’s. It’s doubtful though, whether he’ll be good enough. Long live the king.