Harry Fry reports Champion Hurdle hero Rock On Ruby to be ready to make a belated seasonal reappearance back at Cheltenham this afternoon.
The rookie trainer scrapped plans to give his stable star his first run of the campaign in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle two weeks ago because the ground was too soft.
Fry is adamant the decision to re-route has made no difference as the primary objective is to defend his crown in March.
Today’s race is the obvious new starting point.
“He’s in great order, we’ve ticked him over since the Fighting Fifth. We couldn’t be happier with him and looking forward to running him,” the Dorset handler said.
“His whole season revolves round March, when hopefully he defends his crown, so the programme before Christmas is open to interruptions from the weather.
“Although the Fighting Fifth was definitely plan A, and then a run in the Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day, we always had it in the back of our minds there was a possibility Newcastle might come up too soft or be frozen off. It didn’t affect him too much, we kept him going nicely and he’s ready to rock and roll now.
“There are three quality horses and, on the weights, Zarkandar has the advantage if you take it literally. He’s 2lb lower than us in the ratings yet he gets a 4lb pull.
“It’s going to be a tactical affair. I shouldn’t think there would be masses of pace. He’s fit and ready and the best horse will win on the day.”
Rock On Ruby was officially in the care of Paul Nicholls last season, although he was supervised by Fry.
Nicholls runs Zarkandar, who delighted connections when giving stablemate Prospect Wells 17lb and a neck beating in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton on his return five weeks ago.
The Ditcheat handler says the 2011 Triumph Hurdle winner appears to have benefited greatly from the outing.
“I’m really pleased with him, he’s sparkling. He’s improved from the first run. We’ve kept him nice and fresh because obviously he surprised us that he won the first day,” he said.
“He goes well fresh, there are some good horses in the race. I know that Harry (Fry) has got Rock On Ruby in top form, so it will be interesting, but we’re looking forward to it.”
Nicky Henderson feels Grandouet is fit to do himself justice on his return from injury, but expects Simon Munir's gelding to come on a lot for the outing.
The five-year-old has been sidelined since winning this race 12 months ago. He had surgery on an infected hind fetlock joint in February.
“He’s come back and I think he could still be a Champion Hurdle horse. He’ll come on plenty for the run,” said the Seven Barrows trainer.
“He’s done plenty of work and had a racecourse gallop so he’s certainly ready to run and run well, but if he doesn’t win tomorrow it’s not the end of the world.”
In the day’s feature, the Paul Stewart IronSpine Charity Challenge, Paul Nicholls believes Unioniste can become the youngest horse to win the race.
The four-year-old was only first reserve for the big handicap chase at the 48-hour final declaration stage and needed one horse to be taken out before yesterday’s deadline.
North Yorkshire trainer Ferdy Murphy came to the Ditcheat team’s rescue when he withdrew Divers.
Conditional Harry Derham takes the ride and can claim 5lb, leaving Unioniste to shoulder just 9st 9lb.
“Ferdy was very helpful and we had a fair idea that we might get in,” said Nicholls. “I thought it was a really good performance the last day. He’s got a nice, light weight.
“I’m not worried about him being a four-year-old – another four-year-old of mine hacked up in a handicap chase at Newbury the other week.
“If you saw him jumping at home, you would think he was an eight-year-old.”
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