It's fair to say that the Fighting Fifth has been one of the lesser Grade 1 hurdles around in recent years, often only attracting small fields, and above all failing to entice enough high-class performers to take their chance. However, this year's renewal is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory, with last season's top novice hurdlers, Samcro (won the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle) and Summerville Boy (won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle) set to test their mettle against the reigning Champion Hurdler Buveur d'Air.
Buveur d'Air's winning run stretches back to April 2016, and his only defeat over jumps came in the Supreme Hurdle earlier that season, when he finished third to his outstanding stablemate Altior. That puts some context into what he has achieved in his career to date and, still only a seven-year-old, there is no reason to think he can't keep up the pace for a good while longer yet. Buveur d'Air was sent off at odds of 6/1-on when proving much too strong for his rivals in this race 12 months ago, making duel Fighting Fifth winner Irving, and the 2017 Fred Winter hero Flying Tiger look second rate. It was good to see him knuckle down to win his second Champion Hurdle in a row at Cheltenham later that season, as the majority of his wins have come in relatively easy fashion - especially last term - showing good grit and determination to fend off an upwardly-mobile type who was well supported on the day. This looks an obvious starting point for Buveur d'Air, who has won on all types of ground, so the forecast rain isn't too much of a concern, and it will likely take a top-class performance from one of the second-season hurdlers to lower his colours.
Samcro is bidding to do just that, though. He was a high-class novice last season, winning his first four starts in impressive fashion, notably the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March. Having carried all before him in novice company, connections decided to have a crack at the Punchestown Champion Hurdle on his final start that season and, although things didn't pan out as planned, he would surely have played a major role in the finish had he completed, still hard on the bridle and just starting to make his move when hitting the deck three out (jumped well otherwise). However, many were left scratching their heads when he was beaten Bedrock on his reappearance in the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal last time, seemingly unsuited by the way the race developed. The muddling pace resulted in the race turning into a dash at the finish, Samcro just done for speed by Bedrock - a useful handicapper on the Flat - who picked him off soon after the second last and shot a couple of lengths clear. The ground was likely plenty quick enough for Samcro, though, and that was put forward as a reason for him missing the Morgiana Hurdle last time. Gordon Elliott has been waiting for the ground to soften since, and Samcro should have no excuses if the forecast rain hits Gosforth Park as expected this week. Whether he has the speed to be competitive at this level over two miles remains to be seen, though, and there will be no hiding places up against the best two-miler around.
The expected presence of Summerville Boy adds more spice to the pot, too, a horse who did nothing but improve last season and, if you look back at the mistake he made at the second last in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, it is remarkable he came through to win in the fashion he did. His is very much a chaser on looks, but connections clearly feel he has even more to offer in this sphere, trainer Tom George marking him down as a 'different horse completely' to stablemate Black Op - he is set to go novice chasing - who got to within two and three quarter lengths of Samcro in the Ballymore. Admittedly, Summerville Boy does have a bit to find on Timeform ratings with both Buveur d'Air and Samcro (11 lb with the former and 7 lb with the latter), but it is entirely possible he can bridge that gap, and he hasn't got much to lose here.
For all Bedrock beat Samcro fair and square at Down Royal last time, it would be a surprise if he were to uphold that form, this race likely to test more stamina than speed in what will likely turn out to be soft ground. Vision des Flos routed his field in a novice at Exeter last season, and shaped well in Grade 1s after. He ran well reverted back to timber when runner-up in a minor event at Aintree last time and will likely run his race again without posing a major threat to the principals.
Of the remaining entries, Apple's Jade is unlikely to make the trip across the Irish sea, an attempt at a third Hatton's Grace Hurdle win at Fairyhouse next month likely on her agenda, while it is probably best to watch El Bleu et Rouge on his first start since leaving Willie Mullins.
In summary, it is hard to shy away from the proven form of Buveur d'Air, who will not be deterred by likely conditions and seems sure to run his race. Samcro is clearly a very interesting contender, given the hype that surrounds him, and he will likely be much more near his peak here than he was four weeks ago, but he still needs to prove he has the speed to lay up with the best at this trip and his odds offer little value with that in mind.