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Sam Twiston-Davies rides into a storm as Big Buck’s is beaten

Big Buck’s suffered his first defeat in more than five years when only third behind 66-1 outsider Knockara Beau in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday. The result only tells half of the story as many racing pundits expressed surprise at the riding tactics of Sam Twiston-Davies.

With Big Buck’s having his first run for 420 days and the going heavy, trainer Paul Nicholls had seriously considered withdrawing the four-time World Hurdle winner. He decided that, if he was going to run in the big race at the festival, he had no option but to let him run here.

Sam Twiston-Davies was having his first ride on Big Buck’s with regular rider Ruby Walsh no longer employed by the stable. The ride was given to Twiston-Davies following discussions with the owner and the stable’s number one jockey Daryl Jacob.

Racing fans are familiar with the sight of Big Buck’s lobbing along just behind the leaders before being delivered with his run over the final couple of flights. It was presumed that Twiston-Davies would adopt the same tactics here but it was clear early on that he was going to be much more prominent.

He was close up behind Knockara Bea and Quartz De Thaix while his market rivals were content to sit out the back. With the front-runners rated around two stone inferior to Big Buck’s and struggling to keep up the gallop, the former champion found himself out in front three from home.

The biggest surprise was that it was the 11-year-old Knockara Beau that rallied up the hill to beat At Fishers Cross by a short head with the weakening Big Buck’s three-quarters of a length away third. Channel 4 pundits Graham Cunningham and Mick Fitzgerald both felt that the tactics employed by Twiston-Davies were wrong and had left the horse vulnerable in the closing stages.

Both trainer and jockey blamed the combination of the heavy ground and the horse’s lengthy absence for his defeat. Bookmakers also struggled to assess the merits of the performance with prices varying from 7-4 to 3-1 for the World Hurdle.

The debate is likely to continue in the build-up to the festival in March but Big Buck’s looks capable of making a bold bid for a fifth success in the race. It is safe to assume that he will be ridden with more restraint next time.