Nicky Henderson is well aware of the task facing Buveur D’Air as he attempts to retain his BetVictor Fighting Fifth Hurdle crown at Newcastle – although he has one less runner to worry about with Bedrock a late absentee
Already a dual Champion Hurdle winner, there is a school of thought which suggests the seven-year-old Buveur D’Air does not quite get the credit he deserves.
Quite why that may be – given he is aiming to win his 11th race on the bounce, including two successes over fences – is not clear. But one thing is for certain – he will have to be on his A-game against Samcro and Summerville Boy.
“This, to be fair, will be one of the toughest races he has faced to be honest with you,” said Henderson.
“Whereas the Fighting Fifth last year he was always going to win, the Christmas Hurdle he was always going to win and the Contenders he could not do anything but win – it is a tough starting place.
“He takes a lot of work, but is in good form. He has had a racecourse gallop. He is in good form, and it is his ground.
“It will be a fascinating race – what with Samcro in there, and Summerville Boy is a decent horse too. Tom George’s horses are flying, so he is going to be well wound up for this.”
He went on: “This will be as big a test Buveur D’Air has faced anywhere, and it is first time out.”
Samcro was heralded as the second coming last season, winning at the Cheltenham Festival and being asked to tackle his elders at Punchestown, where he unfortunately fell.
His reputation suffered a further dent when beaten by Bedrock on his return at Down Royal, meaning he is on something of a retrieval mission now.
There was talk of novice chasing this season, but the lure of a genuine Champion Hurdle tilt was too much for connections.
“The track at Newcastle will be sharp enough on Saturday. But Cheltenham in March will be a different story, and there’s only one place that we want to win and that’s Cheltenham in March,” trainer Gordon Elliott told At The Races.
“He’s as fit and as well as I can have him. It’s whether he’s good enough around a sharp track like Newcastle, but I think Cheltenham will be right up his alley.
“I haven’t had a horse in the yard before that I thought could be competitive in a Champion Hurdle, but I think he can.”
Eddie O’Leary, racing manager for owners Gigginstown House Stud, said: “He got there, anyway.
“It’s a big ask – he’s taking on a dual Champion Hurdle winner. It’s a huge ask.
“At least we’ll know what direction we are going in after this.”
Summerville Boy is also making the step out of novice company, but survived two bad jumps at the last two flights in the Supreme at Cheltenham to suggest he was value for a good bit more than the winning margin.
“We’re looking forward to getting him out. He’s had a nice preparation, but obviously we’re going in against the absolute very best – which means we can’t feel our way, like we did last season,” said George.
“It’s a good starting point. He’s done a lot of work at home, but every horse generally comes on for their first race. We haven’t absolutely drained him, and he’s ready for a season ahead of him.
“What you had to be impressed by at Cheltenham was everything had gone wrong and yet he still won, which not many horses can do. He was still very babyish, so I just hope he has grown up. I think he has, but we won’t know until the race.”
While the bookmakers were making it a three-horse race, Iain Jardine, the trainer of Bedrock, was hoping to come in under the radar.
However, a setback means he misses the race.
Jardine said on Friday evening: “We discovered some swelling on a hock. I don’t think it’s anything serious, but you have to be 100 per cent and on your game for races like this.
“It’s typical, the day before a race like this, but you can’t take chances.
“That (Christmas Hurdle at Kempton) is a possibility, yes, but we’ll see how he is and keep our options open.”
Clerk of the course James Armstrong is delighted at the prospect of a great race, which will take place on near-perfect jumping ground.
“We’ve reverted back to good to soft, soft in places, and it shouldn’t change before racing – I’d say perfect ground really,” said Armstrong.
“Ticket sales are up a bit, which you’d expect, but we’re also expecting a lot of walk-ups on the day – and we’d encourage as many people to come along as possible.”