It would be quite a stretch to suggest Buveur D’air’s eclipse in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton opened the door for would-be takers of his Champion Hurdle crown, but Samcro all but stepped out of the running for that distinction with another disappointing display, this time behind Sharjah in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle on Saturday afternoon in Leopardstown.
Well backed to win at the third time of asking this season, he jumped quite well and held every chance in the straight but was unable to get past stablemate and pacesetter Tombstone ever before the main challengers arrived.
The ever-underestimated Sharjah has been busy making up for the disappointment of a novice season which began so promisingly but never developed, and this time the five-year-old was brought with a fine run by Patrick Mullins to secure back-to-back Grade 1 victories.
No match for Samcro when they in a novice hurdle at last season’s Dublin Racing Festival, he has since taken steady steps forward while his old foe’s progress has hit the buffers. In stretching three-and-three-quarter lengths clear of Irish Champion Hurdler Supasundae, he certainly earned consideration as a serious Cheltenham contender.
The win may not only have muddied the waters in the Irish two-mile division, but also given connections of Apple’s Jade further reason to leave all options open. The Irish Champion Hurdle, back at Leopardstown in February, is an option for her and for Saturday’s winner and could be the most informative race this side of the Cheltenham Festival.
“The ground is crucial to him,” said Willie Mullins, of Sharjah. “Patrick said he’s so good on the ground – and we normally get nice ground in Cheltenham. He’s only five and is improving all the time.
“He looked to be unlucky in the novice hurdle here last year and that’s why we felt he was decent horse. People were maybe a little surprised he beat Faugheen in the Morgiana but when you go back and take that form into account it did give him a chance there.
“I think it’s fair to say he has improved more than I anticipated he would.”
Delta Work was workmanlike in winning the Neville Hotels Novice Chase, but it would be harsh to be too critical about a horse who has now won two Grade 1s in three outings over fences. He was behind horses early and perhaps as a result he didn’t jump as well as he had done at Fairyhouse on his previous outing.
Mortal looked a live danger going to the last but made a bad mistake when all but upsides and that all brought his challenge to an end.
To be fair to the winner, he stretched out nicely to the line and may have been a tough nut to crack regardless.
“He’s a lovely horse,” said Elliott. “Davy (Russell, rider) said he has gone very idle and he wasn’t doing a whole lot from the second until after the last. He said the ground is as quick as he wanted it. He was just a bit careful early, but Davy was happy enough.”
With Le Richebourg, which Delta Work touched off in a great finish to the Drinmore on his previous outing, also grabbing Grade 1 honours last week, it’s understandable he has been shortened in the market for the RSA Chase. However, a best price of 6-1 looks a shade on the short side given the strength of the British staying novices.
Last week was a very good one for jockey Finny Maguire, who won three off the four bumpers at Leopardstown, the exception being the only one he didn’t have a ride in. He was very strong aboard Exit Poll on Wednesday, patient and confident aboard Neptune on Thursday, and tactically brilliant aboard the John Nicholson-trained Benruben on Saturday.