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What if? - Brough Scott

HORSE AND HOUND

It was the Hennessy Gold Cup on Saturday just as it was four years ago and has been for more than fifty years before that.  There may be some as yet un-revealed “what ifs” behind Bob’s Worth but there never in all of Hennessy’s history has there been a “what if” like that around Big Bucks in 2008.

He was, of course, back this year. Back as he has been every year since, but back over hurdles and coasting home in the three-miler with extraordinary, insouciant ease for his nineteenth consecutive win over the smaller obstacles. There has never been a better long distance hurdler. But what if Big Bucks had not met the last fence all wrong in the Hennessy Gold Cup of 2008?

For remember he came to that as a young chaser of great promise whose novice season had closed out so impressively at Aintree that he was quoted in the betting for the next year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup. The 2008 Hennessy was Big Bucks’ first race of the new term and as he worked his way smoothly through the field it seemed highly possible that he would become the first five year old to score in the event since Mandarin won the first running (at Cheltenham) way back in 1957. Going to the last at Newbury fifty one years later Big Bucks was only third and a good jump was needed. It didn’t come and as Sam Thomas clung around his neck before slipping off a full fifty yards up the run in the “What ifs” began.

What if Big Bucks had met the fence in a perfect stride? What if Ruby Walsh had not been injured and Sam Thomas had not been going through a nerve-shattering nightmare which had seen a spectacular fall at Liverpool and a last fence capsize on Kauto Star at Haydock only seven days before? Most of all, what if Big Bucks had not been trained by Paul Nicholls who already had the Cheltenham Gold Cup winners Kauto Star and Denman in his stable and now swiftly returned his new star to hurdling?

The answer to all three questions is that we would not have seen Big Bucks back over hurdles for another season – if ever. It is true that he has always been something of a slow learner as to the best way to balance his long, tall frame at full gallop over an obstacle. In his native France it took him ten runs to get a winner’s ticket after first finishing fifth of fifteen as a baffled three year old in a Fontainebleu hurdle race on April Fools Day 2006. In June that year he even unseated his rider (I much prefer the French phrase “derobe”) at Auteuil just as he did Sam Thomas two seasons later at Newbury. So, long and tall though Big Bucks may be, a total of no falls and just two “derobings” after six seasons, seven chases and thirty one hurdle races hardly labels him a hopeless jumper.

He was only five at the time of his Hennessy disaster and it was already becoming clear that staying was his game. If things had dropped right for him that day at Newbury Paul Nicholls would have pressed on down the three mile chasing route even if he would have avoided the Kauto Star / Denman showdowns for a season at least. And if Paul Nicholls had not been Big Bucks trainer? Well the lucky man or woman would have been telling the world what a great chaser Big Bucks was going to be.

Sure he still made the odd blunder but he was only five and what an engine he had. Big Bucks would have soldiered on over fences and found a method of crossing them that was effective enough, and since he showed class over hurdles that even Kauto Star and Denman would be pressed to match who knows that even a Cheltenham Gold Cup could not have been his for the taking? Far from being one of the most stellar of all Paul Nicholls wondrous training achievements, perhaps this was a craven cop-out and the one that got away.

It was cold by the rail as Big Bucks swept past on the run in at Newbury on Saturday but the six minutes which had preceded that moment had warmed the heart. For they had seen a horse utterly in its element, a long tall athlete never apparently hurried but whose power showed in the exhaustion inflicted on his rivals. The way he flips over an obstacle now makes it seem obvious that hurdles is his metier. It is the “what if” that turned out right.