OLVESTON-BORN trainer Paul Nicholls insists his big hope at the Cheltenham Festival, Big Buck’s, is “as good as ever.”

Big Buck’s became the first horse to win four successive staying hurdles titles at Cheltenham in 2012, but missed last year’s meeting due to a serious injury and his run of 18 consecutive wins was brought to an end when he finished third in his comeback race at Prestbury Park in January.

However, the 11-year-old is favourite to win a fifth World Hurdle title under Sam Twiston-Davies, who has taken the ride with former partner Ruby Walsh now devoting most of his time to Irish trainer Willie Mullins.

Walsh will instead ride Annie Power to set up a potentially mouth-watering duel after much speculation over which distance the unbeaten mare would take on.

Nicholls says Annie Power has “got to be a true stayer” having previously enjoyed success over shorter distances, and is confident Big Buck’s can see off the challenge.

“He’s 11 and he’s been injured but we think he’s as good as ever and the one to beat,” Nicholls told the Gazette.

“It’s good to have him back. He ran very well at Cheltenham and has improved a lot so I’m happy with him.”

The return of Big Buck’s has been a welcome boost for Nicholls, who last year headed to the Festival without many of his household names for the first time, with Kauto Star, Denman and Master Minded all retired, and his only win was provided by his nephew Harry Derham on Salubrious in one of the lesser races.

However, the seven-time champion is back on top of the trainers’ prize money table after losing his title to Nicky Henderson last year and looks in a much stronger position this time.

He has high hopes for Silviniaco Conti in the Gold Cup, along with the likes of Al Ferof, Calipto and Irving, who are favourites for the Ryanair Chase, Triumph Hurdle and Supreme Novices’ Hurdle respectively.

“We’re looking forward to it. We’ve got some nice horses in good form but you’re always nervous things could go wrong,” said former Marlwood School pupil Nicholls.

“We’ve got some good chances led by Silviniaco Conti and Big Buck’s and plenty of good back-up. We thought we had good chances last year but it’s mighty competitive.”

Nicholls also has three other strong contenders in the World Hurdle next Thursday, with Derham set for one of the biggest races of his fledgling career on Salubrious.

“We’ve got a few other chances with Salubrious and Zarkandar, and Celestial Halo finished second last year.”

Nicholls’ hopes in the other showpiece races on Tuesday and Wednesday rest with outsider Ptit Zig in the Champion Hurdle and Hinterland in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.