Knockara Beau ran the race of a lifetime to win the galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle with Big Buck's only third.
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The 11-year-old has saved some of his best performances for the undulations of Cheltenham but never in his connection's wildest dreams could they have imagined the 66/1 chance lowering the colours of a host of Ladbrokes World Hurdle contenders.
In truth, the writing looked to be on the wall for George Charlton's stable star who had been passed by the whole field at the top of the hill but Knockara Beau hadn't read the script as he fought his way back into contention jumping the last.
Big Buck's was still in front at that stage but the lack of racefitness began to tell on his first start for 420 days as Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross went by towards the centre of the track with the outsider prevailing by a short-head.
Nicholls said of Big Buck's: "I'm delighted with him, he travelled with all his old zest and jumped well, but he just got a little tired after the back of the last.
"It's very testing ground and we could easily have taken him out and saved him for another day, but I was desperate to get a run into him before the World Hurdle.
"This was only the second time he'd been on grass since his injury, I wanted another racecourse gallop but the ground wouldn't allow it.
"That will improve him enormously. I'm thrilled, I would obviously have liked to have won, but that will put him bang on for his next run.
"I said to Sam to be positive on him and if he got tired, he got tired."
Twiston-Davies said: "When he takes them on again in the World Hurdle he'll run a massive race.
"Everyone expects so much of this horse because he'd won 18 on the bounce but he'd had a year off and he needed the run as much as any horse would.
"He'll come on from that today, he'll run a massive race in the World Hurdle, I promise you that - he felt very special, as we all know he is."
Winning jockey Jan Faltejsek said: "He has run some amazing races at Cheltenham and always just missed out, but he's finally won and I'm over the moon.
"In the past he has made little mistakes that have cost him so hopefully he has learned his lesson."
Charlton said: "I was thrilled to bits, it was a very close thing and I wasn't sure he was going to win.
"We were fairly worried about the ground, but he'd had a little wind operation. He's been dropping his soft palate.
"He had it done about three years ago and we've just had it done again. He didn't drop his soft palate today. The horse needed confidence which is why he ran over hurdles.
"The plan was to go for the Kelso race which he'll have 12st in next month but I've put him in the Gold Cup and I might just run him."
Sky Bet make Big Buck's their 7/4 favourite for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, while At Fishers Cross is in to 7/1.
Spokesperson Michael Shinners said: "While it was tough to watch Big Buck's being beaten at the scene of his four most memorable victories, it's hard to argue he won't improve enormously for the run.
"The testing ground appeared to really take it out of him coming up the hill after the last but I'd expect to see him motoring home in March, especially if ridden with a little more restraint.
"Take nothing away from Knockara Beau, who truly deserved another day in the limelight, while connections of At Fishers Cross will be thrilled to see him come back to his best and he must be considered a major World Hurdle contender again now."
Knockara Beau's only Festival entry is the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.