BUVEUR D’AIR STEPS UP AS SAMCRO FAILS TO DELIVER
The Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday promised to be the most informative two-mile hurdle races outside of the Cheltenham Festival in the last couple of years and it duly delivered a contest that got the world of National Hunt racing talking.
The pitch was simple. The standard setter was Buveur D’Air. Despite being a two-time Champion Hurdle victor, there remained valid questions over his claims to the status usually afforded to one with such a CV given the lack of depth in the two-mile hurdle division in the last two seasons and the absence of a truly defining performance.
On paper he faced what many felt was his toughest-ever test in the shape of last season’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle winner, the much hyped and race-fit Samcro. Also thrown into the mix was last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Summerville Boy on what was his seasonal reappearance. It was a proper race and Buveur D’Air came into it without the benefit of race fitness and after having had a breathing operation.
While there was sufficient concern about Buveur D’Air and confidence behind Samcro to lead to the latter being sent off as the favourite, the race itself proved to be no contest and gave us categorical answers to the questions the line-up posed.
Buveur D’Air produced what could readily be argued was a career-best effort. He settled quite well in behind Samcro and really impressed with his jumping. He jumped as a Champion Hurdle winner should, low, fast and accurate. Having made smooth headway to challenge at the final flight, he paddled through it, but it didn’t even remotely halt his momentum. With just hands-and-heels encouragement from Barry Geraghty, he quickened right away to register a very impressive eight-length victory. For me, this was the best performance of his life.
While some questioned Jack Kennedy’s ride on Samcro, suggesting that he should have set a stronger pace in the first half of the race, I can’t agree with such analysis. Samcro may well have won over a significantly longer trip than this in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last season, but many seem to have quickly forgotten that his most impressive performance came when he showed an electric turn of foot to win a steadily-run renewal of the Deloitte Novice Hurdle over two miles at Leopardstown. He has plenty of pace.
Considering Buveur D’Air often takes a strong grip, a possibility that was even more likely given his freshness on what was his seasonal reappearance, and has produced his best performances in well-run contests, it was a perfectly sound tactical decision from Kennedy to set a steady pace on the famously relaxed Samcro in the hope of getting Buveur D’Air racing freely. As it transpired, it didn’t work, but I strongly suspect that Kennedy making it a more solidly-run race on Samcro would only have led to Buveur D’Air winning by even further.
This was a performance that could well represent a watershed in the shaping of Buveur D’Air’s legacy. For me at least, it would have been very hard to have placed Buveur D’Air amongst the best two-mile hurdlers of even just the last decade based on what he had achieved up to the end of last season. While he often gave the impression that he was capable of better, his two Champion Hurdle wins were achieved in years where his opposition was notably light on the ground and the style of his wins wasn’t sufficiently impressive to compensate for that. That he faced so little meaningful opposition in the build-up to those wins didn’t help his case either.
However, the very same could have been said about Hurricane Fly and Faugheen when they were the same age as Buveur D’Air. It was only later in their careers that those two stars really advanced their claims to greatness. Based on what Buveur D’Air did at Newcastle, there is a strong suggestion that he is better than ever and we may well not yet have seen the very best of him. With the path to him becoming just the sixth horse in history to win three Champion Hurdles looking to be a clear one, the likelihood of Buveur D’Air going on to establish himself as one of the great hurdlers of recent times looks a far greater possibility than it did a week ago.
Unfortunately, there is an absolute dearth of talented two-mile hurdlers in Great Britain. The only British-trained horse that is priced at shorter than 33/1 for the Champion Hurdle is Summerville Boy who was 22 lengths behind Buveur D’Air at Newcastle. Thus, barring Buveur D’Air’s connections make the unlikely sporting decision to bring him over to Leopardstown for the Ryanair Hurdle and/or the Irish Champion Hurdle, Buveur D’Air’s next two starts are likely to see him canter around at long odds-on in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown. This isn’t the fault of Buveur D’Air or his connections, but it really would be great to see a horse with his talent face meaningful opposition more regularly whilst in his prime.
So, what about Samcro? One never wishes to be too hasty, but while the sky was the limit for him at the start of this season, based on his two starts since, the ceiling of his potential as a two-mile hurdler looks to be within reach. While his reappearance was forgivable, this run is far more difficult to draw significant positives from.
Sending him down the Champion Hurdle route looked to be the right decision at the time, but his two starts this season have added significant new evidence into the mix. As well as the bare form of the Fighting Fifth saying what it does, comparing his hurdling technique to that of Buveur D’Air was a stark illustration of his relative shortcomings in that regard at the very highest level. At this stage, it seems unlikely he could trouble an on-song Buveur D’Air regardless of the circumstances.
Samcro’s connections have said he will continue down the same route, but it shouldn’t be considered too late for them to change their minds. Due to the ground conditions leaving many of the top National Hunt prospects behind their usual schedules, if Samcro was sent over fences in his next start over the Christmas period, he would only be an average of one start over fences behind his main novice chasing rivals. For a horse with his talent, giving up such a minor head start shouldn’t be an issue.
Whichever way they go with Samcro, he remains an exciting prospect. That said, much of the excitement is likely to be focused on his switch to novice chasing, whenever that may come.