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Last Updated: March 16, 2011 10:22pm
Big Buck's: In great shape ahead of his bid for a World Hurdle hat-trick
Paul Nicholls is delighted with Big Buck's ahead of his bid to make Cheltenham history by winning three successive Ladbrokes World Hurdles on Thursday.
The eight-year-old is unbeaten in his last ten starts over timber, including the last two renewals of this race, and he now bids to become the first horse ever to win three on the spin.
Lying in wait is David Pipe's fast-improving Cleeve Hurdle hero Grands Crus, who many believe will provide Big Buck's with his stiffest ever task, but Nicholls remains in confident mood.
"He's fresh and well and where I want him to be. I was amazed when he won at Newbury over Christmas as he blew a house down afterwards," said the Ditcheat handler.
"We've really got stuck into him and he's had a racecourse gallop. He's fitter now than ever. If Grands Crus or anyone beats him and he runs up to his best, it will be something exceptional.
"He's won 10 hurdles, most of them Graded, and I can't say much more about him apart from that he's a winner.
"He's going to take some beating and if Grands Crus beats us then he's a better horse than us, but I'd be surprised.
"It would take an awesome performance for a horse to beat him, but it will be a race to savour. He's in better form than his two races earlier this season when he was really only half-fit.
"He won't mind the good ground, and I don't know about Grands Crus. There's pressure on Tom Scudamore to get the tactics right and I know Ruby (Walsh) can't wait to ride him, he sees it as the highlight of his week."We're really looking forward to it."
The owner of Big Buck's, Andy Stewart, is also relishing the prospect of a race that has been billed as a match, and admits Grands Crus is likely to give his charge plenty to think about.
"It's great that it's a decent race. I was very impressed with Grands Crus in the Cleeve Hurdle and it will be exciting," said Stewart.
"We would like to make history and become the first to win three consecutive World Hurdles but if we don't, that's racing.
"We've never had him better - he's absolutely flying.
"Grands Crus is rated 169 and Big Buck's is 5lb ahead of that, I think that's about right. Grands Crus is a young horse improving and he's the main danger.
"If Grands Crus or any other horse beats us, I'll be the first to congratulate them. We've got a race on our hands this year."
Ruby Walsh will be back in the saddle having missed the gelding's first two victories this season due to injury and he has questioned whether Grands Crus will be as effective on the likely quick surface.
"He's got some engine. He's 10 from 10 over hurdles and I'm hoping he's still unbeaten after Thursday," the jockey told Racing UK.
"He is a bit quirky. He doesn't like to be in front too long and he lugs to his left a bit. He is a bit of a strange horse, but he's an incredible racehorse.
"He has the pace to be ridden handy but also the ability to stay three miles over hurdles and the World Hurdle is a tough race. They don't go much slower than in the Champion Hurdle but you have to go for an extra mile.
"It looks a better World Hurdle than last year, but he is a bit special. He is a bit more straightforward as he has got a bit older and doesn't idle as much.
"Grands Crus put up a very good performance last time out, but I wonder, is he a bit ground dependant?
"He seemed to act really well in soft last time, but he looks a really relentless galloper and David Pipe seems really keen on his chances."
Pipe is delighted to have a horse of Grands Crus' calibre at Pond House and is keeping everything crossed the grey can justify all the hype.
"Tom's problem will be trying to settle him in the early stages of the race, but he's a very exciting horse and something Pond House has been looking for since the retirement of Our Vic and Well Chief," said Pipe.
"Hopefully he'll come on to the stage, but it's not just a two-horse race, there are others like Mourad and Fiveforthree, for whom the step up in trip would help.
"Hopefully we'll be first or second - if the worst comes to the worst we'll be second and he'll be a cracking novice chaser for next season.
"Obviously we'd like to win and we hope he can. Tactics will be intriguing, but he's rock-solid and straightforward."
Pipe has a second string to his bow in the shape of Ashkazar, winner of a Cheltenham handicap at the turn of the year.
"Ground isn't an issue and he's still young enough that he can improve, especially with the step up in trip," the trainer continued.
"The World Hurdle is his race and hopefully he's a live outsider. He's just a horse you have to kid in his races and he's probably too intelligent for his own good, but he's always been a high-class horse."
The biggest challengers to the big two would appear to be the Willie Mullins-trained pair Fiveforthree and Mourad.
Fiveforthree has had his injury problems but is a Festival winner, having won what is now the Neptune three years ago, and made a winning comeback at Punchestown recently.
Mourad was placed in a Triumph Hurdle a couple of seasons ago and arrives on the back of two successes.
"We have had a great run with both horses. Both have previous Cheltenham form, Fiveforthree won the Ballymore Properties (now Neptune) which means he'll like the track and I don't think the trip will be a problem for him," said Mullins.
"Everything has gone right for Mourad. We have been aiming him at this race. He ran third in the Triumph Hurdle two years ago, on the day Ruby thought he might have made more use of him, so we know he handles track and he stays.
"Drying conditions will help and he's a young horse coming up, which is what you want coming into a big festival - an improving young horse."
Zaynar is another horse with excellent form at the meeting, having won the Triumph in 2009 and placed third in last season's Champion Hurdle.
But he has been disappointing so far this season and his trainer Nicky Henderson does not expect him to trouble the reigning champion.
"Big Buck's is fantastic and I think we're chasing the place money," said the Seven Barrows handler.
"He was third in the Champion Hurdle, but he's looked really good over two and a half miles.
"The blinkers are coming off, but the cheekpieces will be on. He has a staying pedigree and is in good order. We keep tinkering with his wind as well.
"He's not going to beat Big Buck's, but you never know."