Aintree: Another miracle from Big Buck's
The best measure of Big Buck's is perhaps not Sir Ken, who began his own winning spree at this very meeting 61 years ago. Instead the record the modern champion now holds outright, after extending his unbeaten run to 17 here yesterday, might sooner be reckoned against those challenges that meanwhile proved beyond horses of every standard.
The opening day of the Grand National meeting had begun with the news that another paragon, Frankel, had sustained what was described as a "superficial" injury in the course of innocuous exercise. And then it saw exactly half the 26 runners in the first race over the National fences – many of them, as hunter chasers, the cherished "pets" of amateur, family concerns – failing to complete. Happily, all were unscathed. But whatever else Big Buck's might be, his consistency represents a miracle of soundness.
In truth, the BGC Partners Liverpool Hurdle proved one of the least demanding assignments of his unprecedented sequence. He was faced by a lesser field than in the stayers championship, at Cheltenham last month, and three of his seven rivals failed to get round. Once again, however, the very deficiencies in their jumping were instructive of what sets Big Buck's apart: he always ripples over his hurdles like a stream over the roots of a willow.
How strange, then, that his connections should owe their discovery of his true metier to his clumsiness as a steeplechaser. At the time, no doubt, they cursed Sam Thomas for his ejection at the final fence in the 2008 Hennessy. As things have turned out, the silver lining has gradually emerged as a dazzling new sun.
For the final 100 yards of this, his fourth consecutive win in this race, Ruby Walsh was patting Big Buck's down the neck and easing him to a walk. "We have never got to the bottom of him," he said. "We don't know how good he really is, because he has never really been extended over hurdles. I would say there is a bit more there."
To that extent, it might be argued that his record is in danger of preventing his ultimate fulfilment. Connections must choose between measuring only his longevity, against a familiar standard over three miles, or the full range of his ability, perhaps by trying him against horses stepping up from the Champion Hurdle to the intermediate trip. It seems they are committed to the less adventurous course.
Even so, his trainer Paul Nicholls could barely bring himself to watch the race, and his relief was palpable. "He will get beat, all horses do," he said. "But not today. Not yet. It's extraordinary not only that he has won 17 times, but that he has been sound and healthy on every one of the occasions we've wanted him to run. Maybe it's his class that enables him to dance every beat. He's a real model of a racehorse, really well made, a beautiful free mover. Perhaps he doesn't trot very well, but there aren't many trotting races, are there?"
The champion trainer duly opened up a little daylight in his precarious defence of the title, with Edgardo Sol making a contribution in a valuable handicap later on the card, while all three of Nicky Henderson's runners were beaten behind a 50-1 shot in the Betfred Bowl. With Riverside Theatre very flat after his hard race at Cheltenham, and a promising challenge from Master Of The Hall petering out, it fell to Burton Port to fly the Seven Barrows flag.
His dour rally just claimed second place from Hunt Ball – whose bold run here crowned a season of staggering improvement for his rookie trainer, Kieran Burke – but never threatened Follow The Plan. Travelling strongly in cheekpieces for the first time, the Irish raider opened up on the run to the last and then held out by three lengths. Despite his 50-1 odds, this was his third Grade One success, and he will seek a fourth at the Punchestown Festival.
As usual, Cheltenham form held up only patchily on the first day. Those who graduated with honours included Cape Tribulation, adding another valuable handicap to his Festival success; Menorah, who finally got his jumping together in the novice chase; and Grumeti, who took Countrywide Flame, his Festival conqueror, miles clear of the rest in the Juvenile Hurdle. Grievously, Gottany O's broke down on the flat in this race, a ghastly start to a meeting where the sport is at such pains to show a scrupulous regard for welfare.
It was a profound relief, then, that those who were caught out even by the modified obstacles in the John Smith's Fox Hunters' Chase returned in one piece. Though some jockeys were in the wars – one with concussion, another with a broken ankle – the loose horses largely continued a joyous pursuit of two who had it between them from a long way out. Though Roulez Cool extended Sam Waley-Cohen's masterly record over these fences, it was Cloudy Lane who just stayed on the stronger from the last. Perhaps he found extra impetus from above: Donald McCain, his trainer, had earlier seen his mother unveil a bronze of his father, Ginger, who died last September.
Ballabriggs, who won McCain Jr his first National last year, will be back tomorrow to defend the great prize, in conditions that continue to dry out from soft towards good despite the heavy squalls throughout the region. The Flat meeting down at Folkestone, in contrast, fell prey to such deluges that it was abandoned after two races.
And Frankel? Sir Henry Cecil reported that the unbeaten colt had hurt his off-fore on the gallops. "He is such an extravagant mover that he hit himself," the trainer explained. "At this stage the injury looks superficial, but he will be monitored over the next few days."