Samcro puts his unbeaten record and huge reputation on the line in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday.
The imposing chestnut gelding was knocked down to Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud operation for a mammoth £335,000 after winning his only start in the point-to-point field.
He has lived up to the billing so far, however, winning three bumpers and twice over hurdles, most recently claiming Grade Three honours in the “Monksfield” Novice Hurdle at Navan.
Saturday’s Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novice Hurdle over two and three-quarter miles appeared his most likely target this weekend, but Gordon Elliott’s charge instead returns to two miles for his first assignment at Grade One level.
Elliott said: ” He’s in great form. I couldn’t be happier with the horse.
“We just decided on the real heavy ground the two-mile-six might be a bit much for him this weekend. Shane McCann rides him every day, he’s a very good judge of a horse and he was very keen for me to go for the two-mile race, as were Michael and Eddie (O’Leary). We all had a chat together and we felt this was the best race to go for.”
A much-anticipated clash with the Willie Mullins-trained Next Destination at Naas last month failed to come to fruition after Samcro returned a dirty scope in the days leading up the race, but Elliott is confident his charge is back in peak condition.
He added: ” He’s been 100 per cent. He didn’t miss a day riding out (after the dirty scope), but with horses like that you can’t mess with them.”
Willie Mullins has saddled a record six previous winners of the Deloitte, including each of the last five, and this year fires a four-pronged assault.
Sharjah appears the champion trainer’s main hope, having tipped up at the final flight when travelling like the winner in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle here over Christmas.
He is joined by Real Steel, who also fell at the last when upsides Sharjah, the eventual winner Whiskey Sour and Duc Des Genievres, who was an eyecatching third behind Next Destination at Naas at the start of January.
Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, said: “I think Sharjah has gone a little bit under the radar.
“Obviously he fell at Christmas, but he was in the process of putting up a huge performance at the time and the way I see it Samcro has to come up to his level of form, not the other way round. It’s certainly going to be interesting.
“It looks a red-hot race, as good as any novice hurdle that will be run in Cheltenham I would think.
“Real Steel ran a funny race at Christmas as he gave them a head start before running on and was upsides in front when he fell at the last. If he isn’t as lackadaisical on Sunday then he should run well.
“Whiskey Sour is in a similar boat. He’s won over a mile and a half on the Flat at Galway, so he shouldn’t be too slow to lie up in a two-mile hurdle race, but it took him a while to get into it as well.
“Duc Des Genievres ran a fantastic race on his Irish debut in a Grade One. He’s coming back to two miles and this will tell us plenty about where we’re heading with him.”
Debuchet is an interesting contender for Mags Mullins.
The five-year-old grey was runner-up to the ill-fated Fayonagh in the Champion Bumper at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, but was beaten into fourth on his hurdling debut at this venue over Christmas.
Mullins said: “It was a bit of a rush to get him to Christmas and he just blew up.
“He seems in good form since and hopefully he’s improved.
“It’s a very strong race on Sunday and if he could be placed, I’d be charmed.
“He’s taking on horses with more experience than him and it won’t be easy, but he’s got to take these horses on if he’s going to take them on again in March.
“We’ll find out if he’s up to it or not.”
Henry de Bromhead runs course-and-distance winner Paloma Blue, as well as the Gigginstown-owned Trainwreck.
Joseph O’Brien’s pair of Early Doors and Le Richebourg, and the Tom Mullins-trained Top Othe Ra complete the 11-strong field.