HARRY Fry is confident the application of blinkers can help Rock On Ruby take his game to another level as he prepares to defend his crown in the Stan James Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The fledgling trainer dropped something of a bombshell last weekend when he announced his pride and joy would wear headgear for the first time today, a tactic which paid off with Hardy Eustace when he won his first Champion Hurdle in 2004.
“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,” said Fry. “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.”
Although officially trained by Paul Nicholls a year ago, Rock On Ruby was ably prepared by Fry, who at the time was assisting the champion handler.
Fry said: “The nerves probably won’t kick in until they’re down at the start.At this stage, we’re all just really looking forward to it.
“To have a horse like him running in a Champion Hurdle in my first season as a trainer is great and obviously very exciting. He has really come to himself the last week to ten days and we really couldn’t be happier with him.”
Willie Mullins is hoping Hurricane Fly can silence the doubters and reclaim the title he won in 2011. The 14-times Grade One winner arguably has something to prove, having been beaten into third when odds-on a year ago, but has enjoyed a far smoother preparation this season.
Mullins said: “He travelled well, he’s in great form and I’m happy with conditions. He has done everything right and bounced back for every run right compared to last year when we just got one run into him before we went over there. We’re very pleased and hopeful at this point.”
Ruby Walsh again gets the leg-up aboard Hurricane Fly and is in confident mood. “Everybody has to have an opinion. My opinion is that I love Hurricane Fly,” he said. “I can’t understand why the bookmakers appear to be all out to get him. I’m delighted to be riding him – I’d hate to be laying him – and I think he’ll take all the beating.”
Nicholls still has a major Champion Hurdle contender in Zarkandar, who appears an improved animal since finishing fifth a year ago. “He’s off the bridle for a long way and keeps on galloping up that Cheltenham hill, which is what you want,” said the Ditcheat handler. “He’s workmanlike – he does just enough – but you don’t know what’s left in the locker.”
Nicky Henderson has struck in the Champion Hurdle five times, and this year has a trio of runners in 2010 winner Binocular, Grandouet and Khyber Kim.
Henderson said: “Binocular’s history is fraught with fantastic moments and disappointments, many of which were not his fault at all. If we’re anywhere near our best, he’s in there with a very good chance.
“Grandouet hasn’t run since the International. That wasn’t his or anybody’s fault. I won’t say we haven’t had blips with Grandouet, but these last ten days have been very good.
“He does have a sort of in-built self-destruct button. He can do anything to himself in padded cell! You would have to say that, technically, that run in December in the International rates as good as any and would give him a very sound chance.”
The two hopes for the north are Countrywide Flame and Cinders And Ashes, winners of last year’s Triumph and Supreme Novices’ Hurdles respectively, while the field is completed by the Alan King-trained outsider, Balder Succes.
Meanwhile, Mullins believes Quevega could be even better than last year as she bids for her own piece of Cheltenham Festival history today. The nine-year-old lines up in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, better known as the David Nicholson, a race she will be trying to win for the fifth successive year. If she completes the five-timer, Quevega will become only the second horse since the great Golden Miller to achieve the feat.
Quevega will once again be making her seasonal bow in the race, a tactic Mullins has employed for the last three years “Quevega has done everything well, we think,” said the County Carlow trainer. “Not having had a run, it can be difficult to gauge her, but we think she’s as good, if not better, than last year. She’s travelled great, she seems in really good form and the ground won’t be an issue for her as she handles all types of going.”