Cheltenham: Samcro credentials on the line in Novice Hurdle

Gordon Elliott versus Willie Mullins contest: Samcro takes on Next Destination

Cheltenham is unique but close your eyes and theoretically the most eagerly-anticipated novice event of the week can be reduced to an everyday Irish contest of Elliott v Mullins.

The Ballymore Novice Hurdle is overwhelmingly about Samcro. Whether he's the real deal or yet another hype horse will be decided in a race with a pedigree of throwing up rare champions such Faugheen, Hardy Eustace and Istabraq.

So the fact he's trained by Gordon Elliott and owned by Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud means a certain synchronicity will surround how his definitive test could be primarily measured against Willie Mullins's four-strong team.

The Elliott-Mullins frame of reference dominates Irish racing. Whether it’s on the grandest stage or midweek at Thurles the two men more often than not set the narrative. And O’Leary’s 2016 split with Mullins inevitably introduced a certain edge to their top-flight head-to-heads.


So the possibility of a classic head-to-head between Irish racing’s biggest hitters up the side of this Gloucestershire hill is an enthralling prospect.


Of course some have it that Samcro is past the post already. Even O'Leary and Elliott's Gold Cup-winner Don Cossack didn't conjure the same expectation as this horse. Still it seems apt that perhaps Gigginstown's greatest ever prospect has to pass a test set by the races' most successful ever trainer.

The Mullins pair, Brahma Bull and Scarpeta, are clearly talented while it looks significant that Duc Des Genievres is given another crack at Samcro rather than waiting for Friday's Albert Bartlett.

However in Next Destination Mullins has a horse that in most years would boast an outstanding profile for this race.

He’s unbeaten in three starts over flights, including a Grade One at Naas in January. Unlike Samcro he’s been to Cheltenham before and run well in the Champion Bumper. Next Destination also appears to be particularly highly rated by his trainer.

If Samcro can kick Next Destination out of the way like he has everything else throughout his career then we can probably start to believe the hype.

“Obviously this will be the biggest task of his career and he may not find things quite as easy but we are still confident,” Elliott conceded on Tuesday. “Dropping back to two miles at Leopardstown (Deloitte) he was again impressive and absolutely loved the ground so will enjoy the current conditions.”

Hyped novice

It's 20 years since Mullins was saddling a similarly hyped novice, Florida Pearl, to win the RSA Chase. The champion trainer has won the race three more times and the prospect of an extended three miles, fences and soft ground could be just what his big hope, Al Boum Photo, requires to win.

To do so he will have to overcome one of the most popular Irish fancies of the week in Presenting Percy. Also in the mix is Monalee whose long-term potential is such that he's already priced by one firm to win the 2019 Gold Cup.

The RSA is a traditional route to the “Blue Riband” but Presenting Percy has followed anything but a usual route to this race.

Galway trainer Pat Kelly has brought the 2017 Pertemps winner back here via a long-distance handicap chase, a Grade Two hurdle and a narrow defeat to the Gold Cup hope Our Duke at Gowran just over three weeks ago.

Kelly cuts a rather idiosyncratic figure on the racing scene but his festival record shows how doing things his way can pay off spectacularly.

Both Presenting Percy and Monalee can handle very testing conditions. But the upside to Al Boum Photo’s chance is that he could be one to thrive on them.

The Mullins hope looked set to win easily on heavy ground at Limerick over Christmas only to fall at the last. He then went down by less than a length to Monalee at Leopardstown over two miles and five. Al Boum Photo looks sure to improve for the greater stamina test and looks the value Irish option.

Ninth success

Mullins has five chances of securing a remarkable ninth success in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper. Almost inevitably there is an Elliott runner too in Felix Dejy and Joseph O’Brien has a leading hope in Rhinestone.

Elliott won it with Fayonagh a year yet the eye is invariably drawn to Mullins in this race like few others.

His son, Patrick, is widely presumed to have the pick and he's opted to Blackbow who beat Rhinestone at Leopardstown a month ago. Ruby Walsh is on the recent Naas winner Carefully Selected leaving Paul Townend on Tornado Flyer.

He just beat the subsequent winner Getaway John at Fairyhouse in January despite racing much too keenly. The likely strong gallop here should suit him.

The remarkable Cause Of Causes has won three different races at the last three festivals and defends his Cross-Country Chase title this time. Whether ground conditions are good enough to allow him join legendary four-time winners such as Istabraq and Big Bucks is debatable though.

There will be a tide of sentiment helping Cause Of Causes but another of JP McManus’s four runners, Auvergnat, could be an unsentimental each way betting alternative.

Paul Nicholls has won the Fred Winter three times in the last eight years and the ex-Irish Act Of Valour looks a leading player.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column