Big Buck's goes the Distance
Big Buck's will have just three rivals as he seeks to win the Long Distance Hurdle for the fourth year running at Newbury on Saturday.
Paul Nicholls's brilliant stayer is unbeaten in 17 races since he returned to hurdles after unseating Sam Thomas in the Hennessy at the Berkshire track in 2008.
Big Buck's stablemate Five Dream, who took the runner-up spot 12 months ago, tries again, while the Emma Lavelle-trained Fox Appeal and Reve De Sivola from Nick Williams' stable are the only other ones taking on the champion staying hurdler.
There were four defectors at the final declaration stage - Smad Place, Crack Away Jack, Maggio and Possol.
Andy Stewart, the lucky owner of Big Buck's, cannot wait to see his superstar back in action.
"We're looking forward to it. Ruby (Walsh) tells me he's never been better and Paul (Nicholls) tells me he's never been better, so there'll be no excuses," he said.
"The ground will be heavy and horrible after a couple of nights of frost, but we'll have to live with that.
"I don't know if there'll be much pace on, either, but I'd imagine Five Dream might go a good pace for the first two miles.
"As long as he doesn't fluff his lines on Saturday he'll be going back to Ascot for the Long Walk."
Reve De Sivola has been sidelined by injury since finishing third to The Minack over fences at Ascot last December.
However, he had been a leading novice hurdler, winning a Grade One at the Punchestown Festival in April 2010 after splitting Peddlers Cross and Rite Of Passage at Cheltenham.
"He's come back from a leg injury. We hope he's recovered well. We'd have the injury monitored closely with the vet and he's ready to go," owner Paul Duffy said of the Nick Williams-trained seven-year-old.
"We wanted to bring him back hurdling but trying to find the right race and the right track is quite difficult sometimes.
"We thought this would give him an introduction back. He'll be trying, but obviously there is one horse in there (Big Buck's) and then the rest.
"Realistically, if he runs into a place we'll be very happy.
"The Fixed Brush Hurdle at Haydock came too early and it would have been quite a tough race.
"We thought this was a better introduction, even though he's up against a horse like Big Buck's.
"We thought on balance it was the right race to go for first time out."
Emma Lavelle is under no illusions of the task facing Fox Appeal.
She feels obliged to run the five-year-old because of limited opportunities due to his rating.
"We'll let him take his chance as, off a mark of 148, he's slightly in no-man's land," said the Andover trainer.
"He either has to carry top weight in virtually every handicap he runs in, or he has to run in conditions races, which he is probably not good enough to win.
"I'm not expecting him to beat Big Buck's if he turns up at his best, obviously.
"If our horse can finish second we'll be delighted."