Festival Trials Day has become one of the most eagerly anticipated meetings in the Jump Racing calendar. A huge crowd poured into Prestbury Park with the return of the mighty Big Buck’s the main attraction. The Cleeve Hurdle had been targeted by Team Ditcheat for the all-conquering staying hurdler. Off the track for more than a year and facing a small yet powerful field, this was certain to be a difficult starting point. With Sam Twiston-Davies taking the ride for the first time and obvious question marks over Big Buck’s fitness, his record breaking run would be under serious threat. And so it proved in a thrilling finish. Facing several younger progressive types the major shock was to see him beaten by another 11-year-old in Knockara Beau. George Charlton’s stable star had failed to get his nose in front in 15 previous visits to the home of jump racing. He had run some terrific races in defeat. Previously seconds and fourths in the Cleeve, along with a third place in the Argento Chase, had shown the horses liking for Trials Day. Good enough to place fourth and fifth in a RSA and a Neptune at the Festival, the horse is undoubtedly a class act. But Saturday’s victory, so long overdue, is certain to go down as his finest performance. To conquer Cheltenham a horse has to love the famous hill. Even in numerous defeats, Knockara provided eye-catching finishes, storming up the final climb to the finish. Indeed had the line been a further furlong up the lung bursting slope then he would surely have broken his Cheltenham duck many years ago. In truth his sensational win at the weekend had looked unlikely running downhill to the second last. With all five of his rivals ahead of him, he appeared to be struggling to stay in touch. But as so often, at this most famous of tracks, the hill would have the final say. Three in a line at the last, with Big Buck’s fitness tested to the full, first Knockara Beau and then a rejuvenated At Fishers Cross, headed the favourite. At the line only a short head and three-quarters of a length separated the warriors. Jan Faltejsek punched the air in the knowledge that he, and his mighty challenger from the north, had finally achieved the dream. There is little doubt that a stunned Cheltenham crowd had hoped for another victory for the great Big Buck’s. Earlier in the midst of a mighty storm, crowds had applauded the arrival of the champion in the parade ring. But many later through social media voiced their annoyance at the style of defeat. Rather than a time of anger and frustration I am only able to see the result as a time of celebration. If ever a horse, trainer and jockey deserved their moment of glory then surely it was Knockara, George Charlton and Jan. The reason Jump Racing fans invest so much emotion in this wonderous sport is epitomized in Knockara Beau. Alastair Down called him “a magnificent-looking beast of an 11-year-old” in his own touching column in Sunday’s Racing Post. We fall in love with these warriors and rightly rejoice in their success. Big Buck’s will be back in March, and fighting fit for Saturday’s exertions, he has every chance of taking the World Hurdle crown once again. But surely no-one could deny this moment for Knockara, who in defeating Jump Racing royalty became King for a day.
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