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Last Updated: 12/03/14 1:44pm
Andy Stewart believes Big Buck's is the one to beat on Thursday
Proud owner Andy Stewart insists Big Buck's remains at the top of his game at the age of 11 and expects him to fight all the way in an attempt to regain his stayers' crown at Cheltenham.
Big Buck's was the undisputed number one in the three-mile division with four Ladbrokes World Hurdles among a string of 18 successive victories from January 2009 to December 2012, until injury intervened and he was unable to defend his title last year.
Although beaten on his comeback run in the Cleeve Hurdle in January, the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding went down with all guns blazing in third behind Knockara Beau.
Everything has gone to plan since then, and Stewart is looking forward to facing the Willie Mullins-trained Annie Power, who has replaced Big Buck's as favourite and takes a 100 per cent record into the race.
Stewart said: "We massively respect the mare. She's unbeaten, but there are question marks over whether she will stay and if Big Buck's is back to his top form is she good enough?
"We think Big Buck's is back to his top form, but, just like his owner, he's getting on in age. He's done nothing wrong at all with his preparation since he was beaten three-quarters of a length in the Cleeve. If he had won by that margin, he would not be 3-1.
"I spoke to Sir Alex Ferguson and he said if a player had been off for 42 days he would start him off in the reserves and not play him for the full 90 minutes until he'd had three or four games.
"With Big Buck's there was nothing else you could do but put him in a competitive race over three miles giving a bit of weight (8lb) to the winner (Knockara Beau), and he'd been off for 420 days plus it only the second time he'd been on turf.
"We are a little nervous, but there's nothing he's doing at home to suggest he's 11 years of age and he's had too much."
While delighted with Big Buck's, Nicholls admits he cannot sure if he is as good as he was.
"He'll love the ground, but he's 11 now and, as we saw with Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle, can they be what they were?" he told Channel 4 Racing.
"How you see him (on Thursday) is what he is. I can't get him any better. I'm not saying he's better than he was before. The only way we will know is when he runs tomorrow, but I'm really looking forward to running him."
Sam Twiston-Davies rode Big Buck's for the first time in the Cleeve and is confident of a big run.
He said: "He must go there with a great chance. He's improved to suggest he could win a fifth."
Stewart's colours will also be carried by Celestial Halo, who was an admirable
deputy for Big Buck's 12 months ago when second to Solwhit.
Stewart said: "On his comeback at Haydock, he needed the race. He'd had a foot infection which stopped him running at Ascot in the Long Walk so he'd had a bit of a lay-off as well. He's got a touch of class."
He is also represented by Salubrious, who is owned jointly by the Johnson and Stewart families.
"Salubrious is an improving horse and we should probably have run him in the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell," said Stewart.
"Like most of the horses in the race, he has got to massively improve to trouble a horse like Big Buck's, (but) I think he will run a big race."
Nicholls is mob-handed as he has a fourth runner in Zarkandar.
"It is just that we have no middle-distance hurdle race - two and a half miles - like they have at Aintree," said the Ditcheat handler.
"But there will be a good gallop whatever happens - it certainly won't be lacking in pace, that's for sure.
"Big Buck's needs a test of stamina, Celestial Halo needs a test of stamina and actually Salubrious, who I think will run really tidily, needs a test of stamina and a fast-run race. You don't really get a lack of pace in this race and if there is it won't be a problem.
"Celestial Halo stays, Zarkandar we're going to run to see if he stays,
Salubrious I've got no doubt stays - he ran very well in the Long Walk - and he hasn't had his ground yet. He's in seriously good order and he's a big each-way price.
"Annie Power on reputation - no-one knows if she stays - is the one to beat. She won over two miles at Doncaster last time, but that doesn't tell us anything other than she was fit and healthy."
Annie Power is undoubtedly the one with untapped potential and connections have every faith in her as she steps up in distance and class.
"Everything is fine, she's travelled over well," said Mullins.
"She's running over three miles for the first time. We're hoping she'll stay.
"I don't expect her to have any problem with the drying conditions."
If anyone knows of potential weak links in Big Buck's armour then it is Annie Power's jockey Ruby Walsh, who rode the Nicholls horse to his four World Hurdle triumphs.
He said of Annie Power: "She's a very good mare. She has lots of potential, she has pace and oodles of stamina and we haven't got to the bottom of her.
"Her form is solid, she's beaten Zarkandar twice in England this year and then won over two miles at Doncaster. Fingers crossed the real Annie Power will show up."
At the start of the season, At Fishers Cross was the one widely tipped to succeed Big Buck's as the champion after his victory in the Albert Bartlett last March.
He disappointed in the first half of the campaign, but did have valid reasons for performing below par and showed he was on the way back when finishing ahead of Big Buck's when a close second to Knockara Beau in the Cleeve.
"I don't think he was right for his first couple of runs this season. I know he's had his well-documented physical problems but he was beaten a mile out at Ascot (in the Long Walk)," said his trainer Rebecca Curtis.
"We had something going through the yard and I think he was affected. He's come right now, though, so you could say his run in the Cleeve was his first proper run of the season and with that in mind I think there is room for improvement.
"He wants better ground than it was for the Cleeve but they all will, it was filthy.
He went on good ground at Aintree so I'm not bothered what it's like really.
"He's in great form. It's going to be a tough race, but he's as good as we've ever had him. Hopefully he'll run well."
His rider Tony McCoy is also optimistic of a good run.
"I felt At Fishers Cross was much more like his old self at Cheltenham on Trials Day, and while he needs to step up again things are going the right way," the champion jockey said in his Cheltenham blog.
"Rebecca Curtis has been very happy with him since and believes he has turned a corner. I think Big Buck's is the one we have to beat because of the way the race is going to be run and Annie Power will have to prove that she really stays - and she will really need to stay.
"It would be different if Big Buck's was going out there on his own as he would have to make it a test of stamina but he is going to plenty of help on that score (with three stablemates)."
McCoy chose At Fishers Cross over owner JP McManus's other runner, More Of That.
Though he is untested over this distance, his trainer Jonjo O'Neill believes his stamina will last out and he has won all his four starts to date.
"He's in grand form, he has not run over trip, which has to be a slight concern in your mind and he hasn't got a lot of experience - he does leave his hind legs behind over hurdles and you can't do that in a Grade One," said the Jackdaws Castle handler.
"His run at Cheltenham was very good, he's an up-and-coming horse. I think he'll get the trip but you never know until you run them."Reve De Sivola is one of the outsiders this year after being sent off the 4-1 second favourite 12 months ago when he was fourth to Solwhit.
Paul Duffy, who heads the Diamond Partnership syndicate that own the nine-year-old, feels he is the forgotten horse in the line-up.
He has been a leading stayer for some time, lifting the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot for the last two years and winning a massive pot at Auteuil in November.
"He's well enough and we take our chance. He's a bit of a forgotten horse. Going up the hill, he'll be running on and doing his best," said Duffy.
"He does go through good ground, it's just how it relates to the other horses. We are certainly hopeful for a place.
"The Cleeve did not pan out the way he wanted but he wasn't that far away (fifth to Knockara Beau). It was funny ground that day too. We've put that to one side and hope for better tomorrow."
His trainer Nick Williams believes Reve De Sivola is over-priced and could be good value this time.
"The race at Ascot (Long Walk) to the World Hurdle was probably too long a gap. I felt the Rendlesham was too close to Cheltenham and there weren't that many options," he told At The Races.
"Historically when we've tried to put horses away for Cheltenham in mid-December and wait all the way until March it has never really come off for us, so that's why we went for the Cleeve. He ran OK, but didn't really pick up off the bend.
"I regard Reve De Sivola as a very good, solid each-way prospect. He was 4-1 last year, he's about 20-1 this year. To me he's good value."
Mala Beach was a good winner of the Grade Two Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran in January and his trainer Gordon Elliott sees the six-year-old as a horse for the future.
"Mala Beach had a good run at Christmas and then a good run at Gowran. He's an out-and-out galloper really, a big staying chaser in the making," said the County Meath handler.
"We said at the start of the year we'd mind him for next year which is what we've done. Every horse in the race has niggly doubts, I suppose Annie Power is the one everyone is afraid of."
Medinas won the Coral Cup at last year's Festival, but was put in his place by Celestial Halo when last seen in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in late November.
His trainer Alan King realises the seven-year-old has plenty on his plate, but felt he would have been weighted out of the Coral Cup this time.
"It is a huge ask, but I did not want him carrying 11st 12lb in the Coral Cup, which he won last year, as he is not the biggest," the Barbury Castle handler told www.alankingracing.co.uk.
"We are kind of in no-man's-land with him at the minute and we will probably try him over a fence, either in the spring or next autumn, but he has been a marvellous horse for us.
"It looks like being a very strong race this year and he is up against it."