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Ruby ready to rock Cheltenham Festival
This year’s Cheltenham Festival, which explodes into life this afternoon, promises to be a bountiful year for local horses and their connections. There will be plenty to savour for racing fans too as the Echo brings you coverage and reactions direct from Prestbury Park each day, featuring exclusive interviews with Joe Tizzard, Harry Fry, and Anthony Knott
THERE is good reason for optimism as each of the last three years has seen a victory for horses with local connections.
Cue Card’s famous bumper win for Colin Tizzard in 2010 was followed up in 2011 by a commanding success for his spring-heeled chaser Oiseau De Nuit in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual.
Even better followed last March when up-and-coming Seaborough handler Harry Fry, then understudy to champion trainer Paul Nicholls, was able to galvanise Rock on Ruby to an emphatic Champion Hurdle win under an enterprising Noel Fehily ride.
Hot on the heels of that triumph came one of the “movie moments” of the entire season – a storming victory for topweight Hunt Ball in the 2m4½ furlong Pulteney Land Investments Novices’ Handicap Chase.
Kieran Burke’s gelding caught the racing public’s imagination like no other jumps horse in 2012 – the manner in which he soared up the handicap, vaulting in a few months from the lowest echelons to a placed finish in the Grade One Betfair Bowl at Aintree, was astonishing to behold.
His popularity has more than a little bit to do with his charismatic owner, and biggest fan, Anthony Knott. The Sturminster Newton-based dairy farmer has unbridled confidence in his animal’s ability and this, coupled with some memorable high jinks, has made Knott something of a racing celebrity.
Those switching on their televisions to watch Channel 4’s morning line before the Paddy Power Gold Cup in November might have been forgiven for thinking they had mistakenly found Strictly Come Dancing – Knott was nimbly jiving through a series of dance steps to the strains of a song he had commissioned about Hunt Ball’s meteoric rise. It was enough to make you choke on your cornflakes.
This year, Hunt Ball goes for the ultra-competitive Byrne Group Plate over 2m5f on Thursday. To win he’ll have to outgun an improving sort from the Tizzard stable in Theatre Guide, highly unfortunate not to take a Grade Two Novice chase at Kempton last time out.
Father-and-son team Colin and Joe’s biggest shout comes in the Ryanair Chase, also on Thursday, which is rightfully becoming recognised as one of the meeting’s blue ribands.
The beast in question, Cue Card, has tasted festival glory before and is a justifiable 7/2 favourite for the middle-distance championship event. Today may see a joyous opening day for the county as Rock on Ruby defends his Champion Hurdle crown.
His campaign has been meticulously orchestrated by Harry Fry, who at the age of only 28 has stepped out of Paul Nicholls’ shadow and is training in his own right.
Much like Knott, Harry Fry has caused something of a stir in the last year, albeit in a slightly different manner. One thing the two men definitely share is confidence. Fry has a cool-headed, steely belief in his own ability and that of his charge, “he is a better horse this year”, he told the Echo, “bigger, older, stronger.”
Ciara O’Connor (Fry’s girlfriend), who rides him every day has witnessed the improvement. The form and speed figures from this season back up Fry’s point of view and Rock On Ruby (9-2) is vying for second-favouritism behind Irish legend Hurricane Fly (2-1f), whose lacklustre performance last year held the door open for the Dorset-based champion.
Fry made a surprise announcement last weekend that Rock On Ruby would be fitted with blinkers for the first time at Cheltenham and he is hopeful it will help his stable star take his game to another level.
He said: “We have been thinking about the blinkers for a while and after discussing it with Noel (Fehily) we decided if we were going to do it, first time in the Champion Hurdle is the right time.
“We’re hoping it will bring about an improved performance and after watching him in them at home, I can’t see any reason why it won’t.”
Given there is an obvious lack of pace in this year’s Champion Hurdle, many believe Rock On Ruby could end up making the running.
Fry is hoping this will not be the case, but is planning to leave tactics to his jockey.
He added: “We won’t know how the race is going to unfold until it’s already under way, but Noel will do whatever is best for our horse. He’ll have a plan A, B and C and we’ll just have to see what happens.”