Big Buck’s gave Paul Nicholls his first victory in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
The 6-1 chance, ridden by Ruby Walsh, confirmed form with Punchestowns in a thrilling duel.
The two had met in the Cleeve Hurdle last time, in which Big Buck’s emerged victorious, but Punchestowns met his rival on 8lb better terms in the race which decides the best staying hurdler of the season.
Hot favourite Kasbah Bliss apparently travelled well enough for his French jockey Christophe Pieux but failed to find his usual turn of foot, and was passed up the hill for third by Powerstation.
Two of the Irish raiders, Whatuthink and Shakervilz, helped set only a steady gallop – with Big Buck’s and Punchestowns settled in mid-division.
Pieux was content to sit way off the pace on the odds-on favourite but he made a positive move a mile from home.
By that time, Punchestowns and Barry Geraghty had taken up the running and appeared to be travelling better than anything else.
Geraghty kicked clear in the straight, but Walsh was stalking and began to move into overdrive.
A bad mistake at the final flight gave Punchestowns another bite of the cherry, but Big Buck’s eventually prevailed by a length and three-quarters.
Nicholls said: “He’s a very good horse. I knew he had improved because the ground he won on over Christmas isn’t his ground.
“He just keeps plenty for himself and has won with his ears pricked.
“I was very confident we had him at his peak and he looked fantastic.
“Probably making a mistake at the last didn’t do him any harm and he wasn’t in front too soon then – he just digs deep.
“We bought him to be a Gold Cup horse, and he just might be one day, but it could be in two years’ time now.
Owner Andy Stewart added: “I thought Paul was bonkers when he said Big Buck’s was going to go hurdling.”
Walsh said: “I never jumped a hurdle down the back, but I was delighted to see Christophe (Pieux) arriving on the outside and not behind me.
“This horse has a huge engine, but he’s quirky.
“When I got to Barry (Geraghty), he came back on the bridle and I thought I’d get there too soon.
“He fluffed the last but I always knew I’d get him back.”
Nicky Henderson said of the runner-up: “He’s done absolutely nothing wrong.
“We had to keep that stamina up – the horse stays and jumps.
“Because of his name, you’d rather like to think he should go to Punchestown - there is an ideal race for him there.
“You just wouldn’t want the ground to be too quick, otherwise he’ll be put away for chasing.”
Eamon O’Connell, trainer of third-placed Powerstation, said: “The first two pulled away at the end but I was delighted because we were hoping he might be in the first four.
“It’s job done and we might go to Punchestown now.”
Francois Doumen, trainer of vanquished favourite Kasbah Bliss, said: “He was fairly and squarely beaten.
“Today he came here 200% right and I can’t find an excuse.
“Christophe said he couldn’t catch them up.
“I did think it was presumptuous for people to believe that the other two (Big Buck’s and Punchestowns) were not better than him, because they have never met before.
“It just shows you that jumping is another game altogether.”
Pieux added: “I have no excuse, except that this race came fairly soon after Haydock.
“It just wasn’t the normal Kasbah Bliss – he didn’t have any power in the back straight and I could feel there was something missing.”