World class Hurdle in prospect

The World Hurdle could be the race of the Festival next season with four times winner Big Buck’s potentially returning from injury to attempt to retake his crown back from Solwhit who has looked a revelation since stepping up to three miles. The two questions posed by the race are:

  1. Will Big Buck’s turn up?
  2. If he does turn up, will he still be good enough to beat the potential threats?

If Big Buck’s doesn’t turn up, the race will still be an exciting affair but his presence would add an extra dimension to what is already a fascinating renewal.  The leading contenders that should be feared against Big Buck’s are headed by the winner of this year’s race in Solwhit who had his doubters beforehand but dispelled them under a supremely confident Paul Carberry. He was even more impressive at Aintree when hardly coming off the bridle and ran really well to be second behind Gemix in the French Champion Hurdle at Auteuil last Sunday. It has been well documented that he has been a difficult horse to keep right, so let’s hope Charles Byrne can keep the horse sound and he’s able to defend his crown although I feel he is vulnerable to up and coming types.

The English challenge is led by At Fisher’s Cross who did nothing but improve last season. After winning two competitive handicap hurdles at Newbury and Cheltenham, Rebecca Curtis’s charge went on to relish the step up in grade in the Neptune trial beating the subsequent winner of the Neptune, The New One before winning the Albert Bartlett as he pleased. But his most impressive success came at Aintree, where I severely doubted the horse would handle the better ground, but he duly won in the style of a very good horse. Whatever route he takes next season he looks an exciting prospect and I hope connections decide on the World Hurdle as I believe he will be very hard to beat whatever the going conditions.

Even if Big Buck’s doesn’t turn up, Paul Nicholls will still have a say with this year’s runner up Celestial Halo. He deservedly won the Prix La Barka at Auteuil in May before running well behind Gemix in the French Champion Hurdle where he didn’t quite get home on the ground. Despite his odds of 40/1 it wasn’t a shock to see him run so well at the Festival after some of his past efforts including his Triumph Hurdle victory and his second to Punjabi in the Champion Hurdle. Although he is getting on in years, I feel he could still represent good each way value like he did this year. (Great horse! – JP). Nicholls also has a potential contender in Zarkandar who looks as though three miles is what he needs after his Aintree success beating The New One and Thousand Stars. It will be interesting to see whether the blinkers are kept on after the use of them at Aintree where he looked much sharper than he had all season. But my only concern for the horse is whether he would last out a truly run World Hurdle over three miles.

Since Baracouda’s achievements in the last decade, the French haven’t really brought many over to the Festival but they now look to have a serious prospect in Gemix, who for a five year old looks to have a very promising future. My slight concerns for him would be if the ground was quicker as most French racing takes place on very soft ground and also his tendency to jump away to the right during the French Champion, which could cost valuable ground at Cheltenham.

To answer the second question I asked at the start of this post, I believe Big Buck’s could be susceptible especially if it’s his first run back but in saying that, his unbeaten record over hurdles reflects his raw talent and a fifth World Hurdle success would bring the roof off the stand. However, I believe it would be his toughest task with At Fisher’s Cross looking the best horse to take him on with. He will definitely get the trip unlike Oscar Whiskey in previous years and will have the ideal partner in Tony McCoy who has surprisingly not won this race.