Big Buck’s made the perfect return for owner Andy Stewart and trainer Paul Nicholls when outclassing his rivals in the sportingbet.com Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.
The World Hurdle hero laughed at the front-running Lough Derg all the way up the straight to come home unchallenged.
Ruby Walsh held on to him until letting out an inch of rein on the run-in, where the 2-5 favourite quickly settled the issue, scoring by seven lengths with a further five back to Duc De Regniere.
Some bookmakers were forced to make Big Buck’s odds-on to retain his staying hurdle crown in March, such was the welter of money.
Coral are 4-5 from 6-4 for the Cheltenham Festival contest, but you can get 5-4 (from 7-4) with William Hill while the six-year-old is 5-4 from 6-4 with Ladbrokes.
Nicholls, who advised Stewart to agree to bring Big Buck’s back to hurdling after his defeat in the Hennessy a year ago, said: “Andy thought I was mad but it’s the best thing I did and that’s the best he’s ever jumped today.
“I felt he only had to improve a bit to become the best horse in the yard and he is now the finished article. It will be the Long Walk Hurdle (at Ascot) next and the traditional route back to Cheltenham.”
An elated Stewart added: “We’re very pleased, so roll on March. Of those I’ve seem Diamond Harry is the only one I’d be slightly worried about.”
Colin Tizzard enjoyed his slice of success by saddling an 89-1 double courtesy of Hey Big Spender (8-1) and Mount Oscar (9-1).
Tom Scudamore and Paddy Brennan respectively came in for the plum spare rides owing to a facial injury that will keep trainer’s son Joe out until the middle of next week.
Hey Big Spender ran out a three and three-quarter lengths victor of the sportingbet.com Novices’ Handicap Chase from Fistral Beach.
“He’s a big chap and will certainly stay further,” said the trainer.
“It’s hard luck on Joe. He lost four teeth and had 40 stitches, but he rode one in work on Friday and I hope he’ll be back next Tuesday or Wednesday.”
Mount Oscar buckled down to the task well on the run-in to reel-in Pasco to win by half a length in the sportingbet.com Handicap Chase.
The winner maintained his unbeaten record for Tizzard, who said: “On what I saw he’ll stay a bit further. I told Paddy to ride him like a good horse.
“He was very cool and left it late to deliver his challenge. He’s a 10-year-old novice but I’ll probably go for another handicap when he’s reassessed.”
Trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Barry Geraghty also plundered a double courtesy of Finian’s Rainbow and Fairyland.
Finian’s Rainbow (9-4) trumped market rival Sereth by 15 lengths in the Greyhounds Make Great Pets Novices’ Hurdle.
“We were messing around with him last year and as it was getting late I elected to preserve his novice status,” said Henderson.
“He certainly wouldn’t go two miles on an easy track or on good ground and I would think a race like the Challow Hurdle back here would be ideal for him.”
Fairyland (9-2) bounded away from Frontier Dancer to take the the sportingbet.com Intermediate Limited Handicap Hurdle by five lengths.
“I told Barry to ride her like her half-brother Fair Along and be up there,” said the Seven Barrows handler.
“I kept telling the owners she wanted good ground, and when it was good on Thursday I decided to go for this instead of a Flat race on the all-weather at Kempton.”
The trainer’s hopes of bagging a treble with Scots Dragoon in the sportingbet.com Amateur riders’ Handicap Chase were dashed by 5-4 favourite Shillingstone, trained by Robert and Sally Alner and stylishly ridden by Sam Allwood.