IT’S FAR TOO SOON TO JUDGE SAMCRO
Given the frustrating short-term nature of sport in general in 2018, I don’t know why I was surprised to see the typically kneejerk reaction to Samcro’s surprise 4/9 defeat at Down Royal in the Grade 2 WKD Hurdle.
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger’s 2015 comments of, “every loss is a crisis” sum up the modern-day attitudes to sport nicely, and it has now turned the way of horse racing, where Samcro is concerned.
After last Friday’s 1½ lengths defeat by the Iain Jardine-trained and Rachael Blackmore-ridden Bedrock, it seems many have now written off Samcro as a potential Champion Hurdle contender. Some appear to have written him off as a hurdler. Some appear to have written him off completely as an open Grade 1 performer. And some, now even say he wasn’t that good anyway. The former trio of statements look incredibly premature based on one run, while the latter line of thinking is frustratingly reactionary, and simply wrong.
Are people really going to write off an incredibly exciting Cheltenham Festival winner who went unbeaten in his first eight starts, with an aggregate winning distance of over 63 lengths? In that sequence, a point-to-point, three bumpers and four hurdle races – two of which were Grade 1s – have been won. Are we really going to consign an officially 160-rated brilliant novice hurdler to the muck heap after his first proper defeat? It all just seems over the top without looking at the bigger picture and facts of the race.
Race replay: Watch the replay of Samcro's shock defeat in the WKD Hurdle
So, what is the bigger picture? Given connections of Samcro have elected to stay over hurdles for the season, the ultimate aim is obviously winning the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Hurdle that takes place in March of 2019. There are no Cheltenham Festival races won in November and you can be sure Gordon Elliott left plenty to work on for the remainder of the season.
Elliott’s post-race comments of, “none of my horses have been away on grass this year. He’s a stronger horse and he’s carrying a lot more condition. Normally by now, we’d have been on grass once or twice, at Fairyhouse or Tipperary, but we got nowhere this year” were telling.
These are comments that stack up historically with Elliott, as it was in October of 2017 a gamble developed on Samcro for the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, rumoured to be driven by a sparkling piece of work at Tipperary. But this season, due to the unbelievably dry summer and autumn, many horses around the country haven’t been able to work on grass. Samcro is seemingly no different.
Further evidence to the son of Germany not being anywhere near peak fitness came in the betting market where he was a drifter. And one element in all this scenario that’s being overlooked is, who Gordon Elliott exactly is in the National Hunt game in 2018.
Elliott is now one of the most talented trainers in jumps racing, in a position where he doesn’t have to have his very best horses fully fit to win Grade 2s in November to get noticed. That period of Elliott’s career is long over, and he can now afford to be patient with his top-class inmates with a view to winning at the major festivals.
In my own mind, all the evidence points to the Gigginstown House Stud-owned six-year-old not being anywhere near peak fitness for his return. And rightly so, why would a trainer of Elliott’s calibre peak a horse of Samcro’s ability in November with a whole host of major Grade 1 races on the horizon?
With all the above considered, when one factors in the type of race Samcro ran in on his seasonal debut, if fitness was an issue, the strongly-run WKD Hurdle was going to be a type of war of attrition that could potentially find him out. This is the exact scenario that appears to have played out, with the winning time dipping 6.20s below Racing Post standard; a quick time, worthy of a Grade 2 race.
The aggressive ride given by Jack Kennedy, where he appeared to get sucked into the race early by Ruby Walsh aboard Sharjah, would have also never allowed Samcro to get a breather in, again an element that would test any potential fitness chinks.
In the end, Samcro has been beaten by a hard-fit, in form, progressive hurdler who got the best ride in the race. With Bedrock officially rated 149 coming into Down Royal and Samcro giving the British raider 5lb with the pair clear of this season’s Galway Hurdle winner, was it really all doom and gloom with everything considered? I really don’t think so.
If you believed the hype of Samcro being “the next coming of Jesus Christ”, then I can objectively see why some were disappointed in the immediate aftermath of the race, but opinions on him not possibly being good enough to be a Champion Hurdle contender, a hurdler or up to top-level competition look premature.
In a well-run contest on good ground at Down Royal, Samcro jumped perfectly fine and travelled well before tiring; all positive signs for a horse that was likely nowhere near mentally and physically at his peak. A further positive should also be taken in Samcro’s will to win. He has long been afforded easy races such is his natural ability, but this is the first time his attitude has been tested, and it looked good.
The Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown on November 18 will likely tell us more, and then, I’d be much more confident on trying to predict his future exploits. For now, an open mind on Samcro looks the wisest approach.
For the record, coming into the 2018/19 jumps season, I had Samcro down as an ideal 2m4f novice chaser, but he's simply too good of a horse to pigeonhole, especially on the back of a single run this season. His connections quest to win a Champion Hurdle must be respected, for all having a horse to compete with Willie Mullins in the two-mile hurdling division in Ireland, with an eye on the Trainers’ Championship, may also have been another factor in Samcro staying over hurdles.