It may have been Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham on Saturday but in truth there were plenty of pointers to Cheltenham in March across the whole weekend on both sides of the Irish Sea, with the superb quality of racing on offer negating the need for any such title.
For many, Saturday was all about the return of the mighty staying hurdler Big Buck’s after a near-14-month absence from the racecourse. The unconsidered northern raider Knockara Beau lowered his colours and delivered an unforgettable day for George Charlton’s small stable with his determined push for the line alongside At Fishers Cross, but Big Buck’s, just three-quarters of a length adrift of his fellow 11-year-old conqueror, was entitled to be a little ring-rusty. On better ground in mid-March he cannot possibly be ignored in his quest for a fifth World Hurdle title.
Whether or not it is Big Buck’s or Hurricane Fly that will have the pleasure of Annie Power’s company once connections decide on her Festival target, the mare will make quite a splash at Cheltenham and threatens to knock the five-time Festival winner Quevega off the throne as the queen of Willie Mullins’ stable, and indeed National Hunt racing itself. She’s that rare beast: a mare as big and as strong as any gelding, as her ten straight victories will testify, only four of those having been achieved in races restricted to her own sex.
In winning his fourth Irish Champion Hurdle on Sunday, Hurricane Fly bettered his own record of Grade 1 victories, which now stands at 19, and drew level with Big Buck’s’ tally of wins, which stands at 23.
The outstanding ten-year-old, who can now justifiably be mentioned in the same sentence as the great Istabraq, last tasted defeat in March 2012 when third to Rock On Ruby and Overturn in the Champion Hurdle. He regained his crown last season as part of his current ten-race winning streak, and, all being well, heads to Cheltenham as 3-1 joint-favourite with The New One to take a third title.
For once, Hurricane Fly was made to battle for his victory at Leopardstown but when challenged by rising star Our Conor, and despite reports of lacklustre work during the previous week, the diminutive son of Montjeu dug deep and seemed to relish the scrap for glory from the last flight to the winning line.
The appearances of Big Buck’s and Hurricane Fly, not to mention Annie Power, Red Sherlock, Wishfull Thinking, The Giant Bolster, Trifolium and The Rainbow Hunter among so many good horses in Britain and Ireland over the weekend, delivered something to the sport of National Hunt racing that is rarely seen on the Flat. The palpable buzz from the crowd of knowledgeable racing fans is enhanced by the fact that they are cheering on old friends, met at the racecourse season after season, and in the case of Big Buck’s, welcomed back with deep joy after more than a year away to perform for his eighth season.
Age will eventually weary them, but the resilience of our top jumpers and their ability to hold us in their thrall year after year is something which makes the winter game just that bit extra special. Few other sports would have fans braving the elements to applaud a returning hero in the midst of a thunder storm. As race commentator Richard Hoiles stated so fittingly: “The Almighty has just applauded the return of Big Buck’s at Cheltenham.”