Melon poised to reassert his Champion Hurdle credentials
Ryanair Hurdle could identify a real championship contender come March
Barry Geraghty riding Buveur D’Air (left) pipped Melon by a neck to claim the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last March. Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Buveur D’Air’s shock defeat at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day rejuvenated the Champion Hurdle picture so Samcro gets a chance to get back into the championship frame at Leopardstown on Saturday.
Samcro is set to face half a dozen opponents in the Grade One Ryanair Hurdle sponsored by his owner, Michael O’Leary.
It’s an opportunity for most of them to pitch claims for a Champion Hurdle that looked all but guaranteed for the reigning title holder prior to his loss on Wednesday.
Buveur D’Air’s narrow defeat by Verdana Blue has altered the complexion of March’s highlight though it’s yet another reminder that champions aren’t crowned ten weeks out from the race itself.
Samcro was comprehensively defeated by Buveur D’Air in Newcastle’s Fighting Fifth at the start of the month, a second defeat in a row for a horse that has carried vast expectation from his novice days.
Whether Samcro can ever recover that aura of expectation is questionable no matter what he goes on to do during his career, even if it is worth keeping in mind his long-term future has always looked to be over fences.
But if he isn’t the horse many hoped, he’s still only 8-1 in ante-post betting to give O’Leary and trainer Gordon Elliott a first Champion Hurdle.
That’s the same price as one of his rivals on Saturday, Melon, and with ground conditions still preventing Laurina’s return to action this Ryanair Hurdle could identify a real championship contender come March.
Whether those ground conditions play to Samcro’s strengths as much as, say, soft going around Cheltenham might is debatable.
In both of his defeats this term the strapping chestnut has looked to jump relatively deliberately in comparison to a naturally smooth hurdler like Buveur D’Air.
That has prompted some to suspect Samcro may have been better off switching to novice chases but Elliott and the Gigginstown Stud team are resolute about staying hurdling.
“We’ll give two miles another shot and we’ve got Tombstone in there to make it a true-run race,” Gigginstown’s spokesman, Eddie O’Leary, said on Friday.
“I think as long as it’s a decent pace he’ll be happy and that’s the same for them all really. This is a very good race. There are some quality two-mile hurdlers in it and it will take some winning. It’s a long way from being Samcro’s race,” he added.
Samcro renews rivalry with the cross-channel raider Bedrock, who beat him at Down Royal almost two months ago, and Sharajah, third at Down Royal, who boosted the form of that race by subsequently landing the Morgiana.
Supasundae’s presence back at two miles adds another layer to an intriguing contest that also includes the 2016 winner Petit Mouchoir. He returns to action after spending last season novice chasing.
In contrast, the plan for Melon has always been to try and go one better than his Champion Hurdle second last season.
He comes here without a run but has won first time out for the last two seasons and is the sort of smooth traveller that should allow Ruby Walsh to keep tabs on everything in front of him.
Melon has always been highly regarded by the Willie Mullins team and there is a belief at Closutton that the six year old is capable of stepping up even more on what he did last season.
“Melon was going to run in the Morgiana but wasn’t sparkling in his work so once we missed that we said we’d come straight here. He’s in good form now, working much better,” Patrick Mullins reported.
Since he got to within a neck of Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle last season that makes Melon a prime contender for the crown in March. And just after 2.30 on Saturday he might appear to be even more so.