Samcro (4/1) has long been regarded as a top-class operator by his connections and rediscovered the winning thread with a gutsy performance in the £150,000 G1 Marsh Novices' Chase.
Trained by Gordon Elliott and ridden by Davy Russell, the eight-year-old son of Germany had undergone wind surgery since his last start in December and built a new stable at Elliott's yard in Cullentra, County Meath, Ireland
This performance was a culmination of months of hard work by Elliott and his team as he gamely saw off the gallant Melon (14/1) by a nose in a thrilling finish to the opener. Dual Cheltenham Festival hero Faugheen (3/1 favourite), who like the runner-up is also trained by Willie Mullins, was a length back in third.
This was Elliott's fourth victory of The Festival™ presented by Magners 2020 (Ravenhill, G2 National Hunt Chase; Envoi Allen, G1 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle and Aramax, G3 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle) and his 29th success in total at the meeting. He now leads the Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award (based on his five second-placed finishes).
Reflecting on a second success at The Festival for Samcro following his win in the 2018 G1 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, Elliott said: "Samcro is the forgotten horse. He is one the favourites in the yard and we love him.
"Samcro was in the doldrums for a while and had lost his way, so it means a lot to get him back to win another G1 at Cheltenham.
"You can see how much it means to everyone in the yard. All the girls and Jack Madden who looks after him everyday, have done all the hard work with this horse.
"They have spent day and night trying to get this horse right. He hasn't been scoping clean and it has been hard to get him to scope right - thankfully it has paid off today.
"It is great. Everyone was knocking him when he was in the doldrums - I probably lost a bit of faith in him myself. The horses are flying and all running well, I just can't believe it.
"As you know, we've built a new stable for Samcro and he lives outside.
"I thought he had just got there on the line. Davy said that he missed the second-last and he was on the back-foot, so it was great to see him win.
"It was a great race to watch with Melon, Faugheen and Samcro battling it out, it is what we are all here for.
"He's had his issues, but he was right today and it was job done. Jack Madden said to me this week that he hadn't been this well since the Ballymore and he has looked better everyday.
"I'm delighted for the team, it's a great effort from everyone and all of the team back home will enjoy this as well.
"It was a great feeling for him to win. Just to have him back is brilliant."
1.30pm Marsh Novices' Chase (Grade 1)
1 Samcro (Gigginstown House Stud) Gordon Elliott IRE 8-11-04 Davy Russell 4/1
2 Melon (Marie Donnelly) Willie Mullins IRE 8-11-04 Mr Patrick Mullins 3/1f
3 Faugheen (Susannah Ricci) Willie Mullins IRE 12-11-04 Paul Townend 14/1
Distances: nse, 1
Tote Win: £4.60 Place: £2.00, £3.80, £1.90 Exacta: £68.80
Gordon Elliott - 29th winner at The Festival
Davy Russell - 24th winner at The Festival
Gutsy Samcro gets up for Russell
The Gordon Elliott-trained Samcro got the best of a photo-finish with Melon to take the G1 Marsh Novices' Chase under Davy Russell by a nose at odds of 4/1.
Owned by Gigginstown House Stud, eight-year-old Samcro was scoring his second Festival success, having taken the G1 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle in 2018.
Russell, for whom it was a second win at The Festival 2020 after his victory in the G1 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle on Envoi Allen, said: "He missed the second-last, winged the last and was going to go ahead and win. Patrick's horse battled very gamely and I thought he just chinned me - he actually headed me and, to be fair to my horse, he is so game. He is as brave as a lion and he got back up with the last stride.
"Credit has to go to Gordon and everybody involved. As much as everyone in the yard put in huge effort with this horse, Gigginstown let it happen, so they take huge credit for it. They are fabulous owners and they have been so good to me through my career.
"He was always very liked. He is a very placid horse with a great attitude who is always trying to please you. It was very confusing the way he wasn't maybe running at his best but Gordon always felt that the fire still burned in him - he just had to manipulate a couple of things. There are no set rules with Gordon and that's the beauty of him.
"It was very straightforward. I got a nice position and he was jumping fantastic. He was doing everything that I wanted him to, he was handling the track and the ground. He travelled really well into the straight and down to the second-last, when I got in underneath it and there was no stride there. I just had to keep the momentum up and he missed it. I felt, the minute I landed, he was back on it fighting again. From a long way back at the last, I knew we had a good stride and he winged it, landed, and battled all the way up the hill. I know he is still a novice, but he is a professional novice.
"He was really focused on winning the race as much as I was. Patrick was going for everything and I was going for everything, I knew there was something coming but I wasn't sure what it was. I knew that we had to get maximum effort and, to be fair to the horse, he gave it everything he had."
So near for Mullins
There was a fabulous opener to Thursday's action when the Willie Muilins-trained Melon, a 14/1 shot, lost out by a nose in a bobbing photo to Samcro.
The 12-year-old Faugheen, a stablemate of Melon, was sent off 3/1 favourite and was making ground at the finish to be a length further back in third.
Mullins reflected: "There was a bit of everything there. I thought Melon had won on first look and then on second looks I thought maybe not. Patrick (Mullins) was very happy, he jumped fantastic and gained lengths everywhere.
"Faugheen ran a cracker. He'd done everything right at home and passed his test winning three times in Ireland and there wasn't any excuse not to bring him back.
"Paul (Townend) felt he made one mistake that cost him any chance he'd had of winning.
Rich Ricci, whose wife Susannah owns Faugheen, was delighted to see the veteran perform so well.
"That was magic, it was a great race," said Ricci. "If he'd winged the third last he might have got there but obviously the wind op had worked for Samcro and it's great for the O'Learys, who put a lot into the game.
"We were in the shop window today but he should that older horses can do it and if the love it, why not?
"Just hearing them say beforehand that the horse won here in 2014 and 2015 and now it's 2020 and we're still here - that's magic.
"I'd imagine he'll go to Punchestown, I'm sure his Irish fans would love to see him there.
Patrick Mullins reflects
Jockey Patrick Mullins missed out by a nose on victory in the opening G1 Marsh Novices' Chase aboard Melon (14/1), trained by his father Willie.
The amateur rider said: "Riding, I didn't think I was up, to be honest. He has run really well and enjoyed attacking his fences - he was out to his right a little bit, so he might have a bit more improving going back right-handed.
"We just haven't met the last on a great stride - I was thinking it was too long as I was coming down and I didn't have enough horse left. We popped it and it has probably handed the advantage back to Samcro, but he missed the second-last.
"He has run a cracker and we know he stays very well, so I would say that we could probably go up in trip again. I think that is the way to ride him, use his stride and use his jumping. He is a kind horse at home and its just disappointing to get beat."
Going after the first
Davy Russell, partner of the 4/1 winner Samcro, said: "Soft."
Patrick Mullins, rider of second-placed Melon (14/1), said: "Soft."
Paul Townend, rider of the 3/1 favourite, third home Faugheen, said: "Soft."
Nico de Boinville, partner of Mister Fisher, said: "It is dead and tacky. No change from yesterday."
Danny Cook, jockey of Midnight Shadow, said: "Very dead and hard work."
Tom Scudamore, on board Poker Play, said: "Soft ground."
Robbie Power, jockey of Reserve Tank, said: "Soft."
Rachael Blackmore, on board Bapaume, said: "A bit tacky."
Danny Mullins, jockey of Tornado Flyer, said: "It is still a little dead."
Harry Cobden, rider of Saint Sonnet, said: "Lovely ground, much better than yesterday."
Jonjo O'Neill jr, partner of Annie Mc, said: "Soft."