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Last Updated: 19/02/09 12:23pm
Big Buck's jumps ahead at the last hurdle.
Big Buck's presented himself as a serious contender for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle with a game defeat of Punchestowns at Cheltenham.
The Byrne Group Cleeve Hurdle, run over the same course and distance as March's feature event, brought together a cluster of the biggest names in the sphere headed by the Festival favourite Punchestowns.
Big Buck's (7-2) started off the season in controversy over the bigger obstacles as he unseated Sam Thomas at the final fence of the Hennessy Gold Cup, causing his rider untold misery.
New plans were implemented by trainer Paul Nicholls and he won a handicap hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year's Day before finding the acid test to his credentials coming along pretty quickly against Nicky Henderson's imperious Long Walk victor Punchestowns, the 10-11 favourite.
After a completely uneventful opening circuit, it was up to the pacey Fair Along to show his hand first but the two market principles were stalking ominously as they joined him in the game at the second-last flight.
Barry Geraghty got after Punchestowns but the concession of 8lb proved too much as Big Buck's and Ruby Walsh raced four lengths clear on the run-in.
"We made mistakes with him last year and it was only when he ran over three miles at Aintree that we saw what he was capable of," said Nicholls.
"We just decided after the Hennessy that with Kauto Star and Denman and the like, it wouldn't do him any harm to go back over hurdles as he's only six and he can run in other Gold Cups.
"I don't want to say anything more about the Hennessy but I have no doubt Ruby would have won on him. It's hard on Sam, but he didn't really know the horse and Ruby is great on him.
"Doing this has been the making of him.
"He was getting 8lb but better ground will help us too and I think he's got a great chance in the World Hurdle."
Walsh added: "He's always been held in high regard and you can tell that when you walk into the yard as there is Denman, Kauto Star, Master Minded and this horse in the next stable.
"He gave me a great feel and I knew I had plenty of horse under me. I got there plenty soon enough but he has a big engine and he pulled plenty out."
Owner Andy Stewart was not quite as confident before the race as Nicholls had been, adding: "Who knows what would have happened if the two were at level weights, but roll on March!"
Bookmakers were divided on betting for the Festival. The sponsors eased Punchestowns from 3-1 to 5-2 joint-favourite with Kasbah Bliss and cut Big Buck's to 5-1 from 14s. Totesport make the trio 100-30 co-favourites.
Henderson was more than happy with his charge.
"That is fine," he said.
"He was never going to get to Cheltenham without another run as he is a big bull of a horse.
"They have gone no gallop and haven't had a hard race and it didn't turn into a slog. He is a big, stuffy horse and wasn't wound up for today.
"You can't have him wound up like he was for the Long Walk all of the time and it has to be done in little steps.
"I have a little bit up my sleeve and we have the 8lb he was giving the winner as well."
Fair Along was two and a quarter lengths away in third while Lough Derg again refused to be written off and battled from a distant last on the back straight to be fourth.