Big Buck's return to Cheltenham did not reap the rewards that many had hoped, as Paul Nicholls' four-time World Hurdle champion could finish only third behind the surprise 66-1 winner Knockara Beau.
Returning off a near 450 day absence, Big Buck's was returning to Cheltenham with the anticipation of claiming his nineteenth successive hurdles victory high on the list for many attendees on Saturday, but the thousands of National Hunt fans that flocked through Cheltenham's gates would go home disappointed at the defeat of their fan favourite, but also in awe of a superb horse race which suggested the eleven year old may still be a potent force at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Travelling well throughout the early stages of the race, Big Buck's cantered to the front of the pack with three hurdles to go but could not sustain his usual powerful end-race effort as he was passed in the final one hundred and fifty yards with his lack of race fitness seemingly his undoing.
As Big Buck's faded marginally, an epic tussle up the iconic Cheltenham hill was propelled towards the eyes of the faithful racegoers as Knockara Beau and Jan Faltejsek claimed the most notable victory of their careers, repelling the late charge of At Fishers Cross and Tony McCoy to win by a short head.
"Im thrilled with him, but he was entitled to get tired," said Paul Nicholls, trainer of Big Buck's. "I told Sam to go out and be positive and that's what he did. Everyone expects so much, but he's a horse like the rest of them and he;ll run a massive race in the World Hurdle."
Finishing second was at At Fishers Cross, a horse who himself had entered the Cleeve Hurdle with questions to answer after a duo of defeats in somewhat surprising circumstances. Sent off at considerably low odds on both his starts this season, At Fishers Cross had looked labored when challenging for victory in the contests before making spectacular errors late on both occasions.
Today, on his first return to Cheltenham since his superb victory in the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle at last season's Cheltenham Festival, At Fishers Cross was back with renewed enthusiasm for racing, which will have delighted his connections whilst also providing a headache to ponder as they begin on the road to Cheltenham with two strong challengers to victory in the World Hurdle.
Whilst Big Buck's could not quite deliver at Cheltenham, his long-term associate Ruby Walsh was in fine form at Doncaster as he partnered the stunning up and coming mare Annie Power to an easy success in her own trial.
Like Big Buck's, Annie Power has risen through the hurdling ranks and had been progressing towards becoming Big Buck's most obvious challenger for this season's World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. With Big Buck's meeting a minor setback, Annie Power now enters the Festival as the 5/2 favourite for that race.
Champions can remain undefeated and retire unchallenged, but it is their ability to bounce back from a defeat which makes them strong and enhances their legacies. Time will tell whether Big Buck's can return to his imperious best, a level which saw him sublime on each start over the smaller obstacles, but for him to do so he may have to face his toughest test yet against a strong field of talented rivals in this season's World Hurdle.
Should he defeat the likes of Annie Power, More Of That and reverse the form with At Fishers Cross, there is no doubt that Big Buck's will regain his rightful position of superiority in this division and further enhance the legacy which he has created over five stunning year of captivating and faultless performances.
World Hurdle (Latest Betting from Paddy Power) : Annie Power 5/2, Big Buck's 3/1, At Fishers Cross 4/1.