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.
“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 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.”
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.”
Nicholls is also represented by Salubrious and Zarkandar.
Said the trainer: “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 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 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”
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 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.”