THE Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle is one of the highlights of the Cheltenham Festival.
In the lead up to this year’s race, we will be taking a trip down memory lane to look back at some of the most memorable renewals of the historic contest.
2012 – Big Buck’s
Paul Nicholls’ staying supremo conquered every Grade 1 under the sun in the lead up to his 2012 World Hurdle bid.
Grand Crus, Punchestowns and Time For Rupert had come with lofty reputations in years gone by – but all had fallen to the Ditcheat destructor.
Now, it was the turn of another battalion of keen-eyed pretenders. They knew the task that faced them, but came regardless.
Heading the list of dangers to three-time reigning champion Big Buck’s, was the ultra-progressive Oscar Whisky.
Nicky Henderson had kept his cards close to his chest with what many saw as his secret weapon, but now was his chance to unleash him into the big time.
A winner of the previous season’s Aintree Hurdle, he warmed up for the race in most unusual fashion by winning a ‘jumpers bumper’ over two miles at Kempton.
This was a very different test, but one that his maestro handler was sure he’d appreciate.
Also looking to usurp Big Buck’s’ crown was Irish raider Thousand Stars.
The popular grey had finished a neck behind Oscar Whisky in the Aintree contest but many agreed the three mile trip would bring out his best after his success at the distance in a French Grade 1 the season before.
In the pre-Rich Ricci era, Willie Mullins was just starting to become a man to fear at the Festival and his main contender most certainly brought a dangerous profile.
Then there was the unconsidered Voler La Vedette.
Colm Murphy’s mare had been mopping up in lesser contests across the Irish Sea in the lead-up to the race, with a win in the Hatton’s Grace a good marker of her ability.
Despite her consistency at the top level, she was sent off an easy-to-back 20-1 shot.
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Indeed, punters only wanted to know about one horse – Big Buck’s.
Smashed into 5-6f as the tape went up, he kicked off to a roar that carried both exhilaration and expectation.
As was often the case, the field went off at a decent lick, hoping to exhaust the favourite’s bottomless engine.
Outsiders Cross Kennon and Five Dream took them along, neither sporting much hope of anything better than place-money.
The favourite, carrying those famous red and white silks of the Stewart family, sat just in behind, with Oscar Whisky and Voler La Vedette covering jockey Ruby Walsh’s every move.
Such was the ease with which most of the runners went about their business, nothing of any great note happened for almost two circuits.
Approaching the downhill run that signalled the entrance to the home straight, Walsh, as astute as Jeff Bezos when riding the Cheltenham undulations, had his mount in the perfect position.
With the vanguard backpedalling, he took the lead and picked up the pace until eventually only Thousand Stars, Smad Place, Mourad, Voler La Vedette and Oscar Whisky were left in contention.
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Facing up to the cacophonous Cheltenham crowd, Walsh began to crouch lower as he asked his willing partner for more.
Suddenly, though, a fourth title looked in peril. The eye was drawn to both Oscar Whisky and Voler La Vedette, both of whom travelled as sweetly as they had done from the outset.
This was Oscar Whisky’s acid test. In weeks leading up to the race, all the talk had been of whether he would be able to see out this longer trip for the first time.
And unfortunately for Nicky Henderson, the critics were right. Try as he might, the dashboard began to flicker, and as quickly as he’d loomed up, so his challenge began to fade.
That left just one challenger – Voler La Vedette.
Throughout the contest, jockey Andrew Lynch had given her a beautiful, waiting ride. Snapping away at the heels of the principles, he knew eyeballing Big Buck’s was where his predecessors had gone wrong, so he kept his powder dry until the very last moment.
As the two rivals approached the final hurdle, Lynch, with ice cold blood coursing through his veins, switched to Big Buck’s’ inner.
Relive Big Buck’s’ 2012 Stayers’ Hurdle win here
And with a hundred yards to go, he finally let go of the brake pedal.
Immediately, there was only going to be one winner. As soon as Big Buck’s realised his crown was in danger, he kicked into overdrive – just as he’d always done.
The foes, battered and bruised, fought tooth and nail up the run-in, but with a few painful metres left to go, Big Buck’s edged ahead to grind out his fourth World Hurdle on the bounce.
It was a familiar story. Yet again, he’d come so close to defeat and yet again he’d pulled it out of the fire.
The greatest staying hurdler of all time, as the tape flies up for the contest next month he will be fondly remembered – for laying down a marker few could ever dream of reaching.