Leopardstown win makes Sharjah a Cheltenham fancy but Samcro sinks againSharjah, ridden by Patrick Mullins, jumps the last ahead of Samcro (Jack Kennedy, white cap) who fades into fifth.
Gordon Elliott’s face betrayed shock rather than surprise after the Ryanair Hurdle here on Saturday, as he watched the big-screen replay of a race when his highly rated hurdler Samcro finished fifth of six behind a comfortable winner in Sharjah. The second viewing was no more palatable than the first: Samcro, the 6-4 favourite, travelled well enough and moved towards the lead between the final two flights but dropped away tamely in a matter of strides as Sharjah took control at the last.
This was Samcro’s fourth race since his victory in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham in March seemed to confirm his status as the new star of Irish jumping – and it was also his fourth defeat.
“I haven’t a clue,” Elliott said. “The horse never finished his race out, he never ran his race at all. Tombstone [a 66-1 stablemate] finished in front of him. We’ll get him home and see how he is.”
It is possible that something will come to light over the next few days to explain Samcro’s latest disappointment, but it also seems increasingly likely that his clear superiority in last season’s novice division has slowly eroded over the past nine months.
Others have caught up in terms of experience and technique, Sharjah being an obvious example. He fell at the last flight when seeming poised to win a Grade One hurdle at this meeting 12 months ago but when he loomed up in similar style on Saturday Sharjah never looked likely to repeat that mistake.
The winner, ridden by Patrick Mullins, was the outsider of the two Willie Mullins-trained runners in the race but is now among the market leaders at around 10-1 for the Champion Hurdle in March.
Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.“The [good] ground made the whole difference to him, he’s so good on it,” Mullins said. “I don’t know [if he will race before Cheltenham], he will have an entry at the Dublin Festival [in February] but he’ll be entered for the Champion Hurdle and he might just go straight there.
“You normally get nice ground at Cheltenham and he looks to be an improving horse. He looked to be very unlucky in that race last Christmas and that’s why we felt he was a decent horse. People were maybe surprised that he beat [the former Champion Hurdle winner] Faugheen in the Morgiana [in November] but when you went back and looked at that form, it gave him a chance.”
Elliott saddled a Grade One winner earlier on the card thanks to Delta Work, who was the only novice in the field when he took the Pertemps Final at last season’s Cheltenham Festival. He will return to the meeting in March as a leading contender for the RSA Novice Chase after adding a second Grade One over fences to his record in the three-mile Neville Hotels Novice Chase.
Delta Work was one of five runners in a seven-strong field in the colours of Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud but the market was in little doubt that Delta Work and Davy Russell were the partnership to beat following their win in the Drinmore Novice Chase last time and sent them off at 8-15.
Ben Dundee, one of the two interlopers on O’Leary’s near-monopoly, was an early faller, which left Jessica Harrington’s Moonshine Bay surrounded by runners in purple and white. Mortal, from Joseph O’Brien’s yard, was the one to give the favourite most to do but a mistake at the last brought an end to his challenge and Delta Work came home eight lengths clear with Blow By Blow completing Gigginstown’s 1-2-3.
Delta Work is now a solid 6-1 second-favourite for the RSA Chase behind Nicky Henderson’s Santini, who was surprisingly beaten into third place in the Kauto Star Novice Chase at Kempton Park on Wednesday.
“We were lucky that Joseph’s horse made a mistake at the last but Davy said that he was happy enough,” Elliott said. “I’d imagine he’d come back here [in February] and it’s a good thing that he is settling now to get the three miles. He’s a good horse, he was a 150-rated hurdler and he loves a battle as well.”