Fighting Fifth Hurdle: Buveur D'Air, Samcro and Summerville Boy to race at Newcastle

Samcro
Samcro (centre) suffered a shock defeat at Down Royal earlier this month

History shows that most reigning kings and queens have generally had to deal with just one young pretender to their crown at a time.

In contrast, Buveur D'Air, who has been on jump racing's hurdling throne since March 2017 with success in the last two Champion Hurdles is looking at a double challenge to his supremacy.

And nearly four months before the eight-year-old goes for a famous hat-trick at the Cheltenham Festival, he is already facing a hotly anticipated early showdown with would-be titleholders Samcro and Summerville Boy in the Grade One Betvictor Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle (Saturday 14:05 GMT).

It's probably the most outstanding staging of the north east of England's number one jumping prize since 1980, when the great Sea Pigeon finished second to fellow star Birds Nest - although the placings were reversed by the stewards - and big-race regular at the time, Pollardstown was third.

Actually, in those days the top horses clashed regularly, something that happens less often now, although this is the second week running - after a glittering cast list for Haydock's Betfair Chase - that the National Hunt season has an early, 'mini' Cheltenham Festival race to enjoy.

The 2018 race is the first for the Nicky Henderson-trained Buveur D'Air, ridden by jockey Barry Geraghty in the silks of owner JP McManus, since he saw off all-comers and retained his championship at the conclusion of a season that netted four wins from four starts, the first of them also in the Newcastle feature.

Indeed, the horse whose name translates from French as 'drinker of air' has swallowed up his opponents in all but one of the 13 races in which he has competed over obstacles - he was third in a high-quality Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2016 - over the past three years.

Buveur D'Air - Reigning champion

Buveur D'Air
Buveur D'Air retained the Champion Hurdle title with a thrilling victory from Melon at the Cheltenham Festival

CV: Dual Champion Hurdler, Cheltenham Festival

Official rating: 169 (176 rating by Istabraq and Faugheen highest of modern times)

Form: 11241131111111111

They say: "This will be as big a test as he's faced - it's a tough starting place, but he'll have his [favoured] ground and he's in good form" - trainer Nicky Henderson.

Odds (sponsor): Evens favourite (9-4 fav, Champion Hurdle)

One other thing: The only horses to have beaten Buveur D'Air over obstacles are the brilliant Altior - also trained by Henderson - and the highly rated Min in the 2016 Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

While you would have thought a horse with his credentials didn't exactly need the support of the 'Fighting Fifth' - the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, or 5th Regiment of Foot - to make it a successful start to the campaign, those around Samcro and Summerville Boy hope otherwise.

That said, it's a big day for Samcro, last season's much-vaunted Ballymore Novices' Hurdle winner at the Festival, who runs for airline tycoon Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud operation, and a day that could theoretically define his season.

The seven-year-old, part of trainer Gordon Elliott's vast and increasingly prolific team based in County Meath, Ireland, and the mount of jockey Jack Kennedy, is on something of a retrieval mission after suffering a surprise defeat by Bedrock, who is in the field too, at Down Royal last time out.

And before that, the gelding with a giant reputation, and growing following, lost his unbeaten record when a faller at Punchestown; if he suffers another loss here, there's a chance that the O'Leary-Elliott axis might be tempted to switch him to steeplechasing.

Samcro - Is the hype justified?

Samcro at Leopardstown
Jack Kennedy riding Samcro clear the last to win The Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown in February

CV: Grade One-race winner at Leopardstown and Cheltenham Festival

Official rating: 160

Form: 11111111F2

They say: "This his toughest test so far but I do think he's a Champion Hurdle horse. Down Royal was his first run of the season and he's sure to come on a lot for it" - jockey Jack Kennedy.

Odds: 2-1 (4-1, Champion Hurdle)

One more thing: Made winning debut in a County Wexford point-to-point when the only horse to get anywhere near living with him was Elegant Escape, now with trainer Colin Tizzard and a leading contender for Newbury's feature.

It's probably significant that vibes around Summerville Boy, conqueror of the talented Kalashnikov in last season's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, are pretty strong, because another horse trained by Tom George, Black Op, was second behind Samcro at Cheltenham.

And it was possible to detect a certain amount of knowing enjoyment when George said of the gelding, owned by businessman Roger Brookhouse and being ridden by Noel Fehily, "we think we know where we stand [as regards Samcro]".

Summerville Boy - The surprise package?

Summerville Boy
Jockey Noel Fehily celebrates after riding Summerville Boy to victory on day one of the Cheltenham Festival

CV: Grade One-race winner at Sandown and Cheltenham Festival.

Official rating: 156

Form: 122311

They say: "I think he's got an unbelievable amount of talent and we couldn't be happier with him; he's in at the deep end but hopefully we'll have something to build on" - trainer Tom George.

Odds (sponsor): 4-1 (12-1, Champion Hurdle)

One more thing: Summerville Boy's jockey Noel Fehily knows what he's up against having ridden Buveur D'Air seven times, including when successful in the first of his Champion Hurdles.

Also this weekend…

  • At Newbury (Saturday), the Ladbrokes Trophy (15:00 GMT) might not at first glance be the 'hottest' staging of the 'old Hennessy' of all time.
  • Much of the pre-race chat has been of Thomas Patrick and Ms Parfois. Success for the Richard Johnson-ridden six-year-old, successful over this three and a quarter mile distance on the course in March, would further enhance the burgeoning reputation of trainer Tom Lacey, who's been churning out the winners from his base tucked away in the hills of south Herefordshire.
  • At Fairyhouse (Sunday), a high quality programme is highlighted by the Hatton's Grace Hurdle (14:40) in which seven-time Grade One-race winning mare Apple's Jade looks for a hat-trick; she is again due to meet Benie Des Dieux who twice beat her during the 2017/18 season.

Coverage from Newcastle, Newbury and Fairyhouse on BBC 5 Live and the BBC Sport website.

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