Ruby to Rock again in Champion
Channel 4 commentator Simon Holt picks out his best bets from day one of the Cheltenham Festival.
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The history of the Stan James Champion Hurdle is notable for a large number of multiple winners and Rock On Ruby has an excellent chance of adding to last year's success in the feature event on day one of the Cheltenham Festival.
The Harry Fry-trained gelding, who is to be fitted with half-cup blinkers for the first time, has had only one race on his agenda this season and looked some way short of fitness when finishing a tired third in testing ground behind Zarkandar and Grandouet in the International Hurdle on Cheltenham's New Course in December.
- 1pt win Dodging Bullets in 1.30 Cheltenham at 11/1 (Coral) - Looks the one to be with against the hot favourite.
- 1pt win Overturn in 2.05 Cheltenham at 10/3 (sportingbet) - Will be hard to peg back and can lower the colours of Simonsig.
- 2pts win Rock On Ruby in 3.20 Cheltenham at 9/2 (general) - Great record at the track and set to retain his crown.
- 1pt e.w. Fruity O'Rooney in 2.40 Cheltenham at 10/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4 Coral) - Runner-up last year and stable has been in top form.
Rock On Ruby looked in better shape at Doncaster subsequently when benefitting from the fatal last-flight fall of the challenging Darlan who, for all the world, looked a future champion.
Recent reports suggest Fry - who sent out a double at Wincanton last week to advertise the well-being of his horses - is more than happy with his stable star's condition and he is taken to confirm last year's placings with Hurricane Fly (third), Binocular (fourth) and Zarkandar (fifth).
What is so attractive about Rock On Ruby is his great record at Cheltenham as well as his ability to stay further than two miles as he was only beaten a whisker in the Neptune Novices (2m5f) by First Lieutenant a couple of years ago.
Hurricane Fly, who beat Peddlers Cross and Oscar Whisky in this race two years ago, had been regarded as one of the bankers of the meeting at last year's Festival only to fall short.
Connections believe he is back to his best now but albeit impressive victories against inferior opposition in Ireland this season do not amount to solid proof.
Like Binocular, the Champion Hurdler of 2010, history is against his chances of winning again as only Comedy Of Errors - beaten by Lanzarote between his victories in 1973 and 1975 - has managed to regain the crown.
Zarkandar is another horse who might not have been in top form 12 months ago but the shorter home straight on Cheltenham's Old Course (over which the Champion is run) may not suit his galloping style compared to the longer New Course.
One also senses that he will be the horse most inconvenienced if there is a slow early pace which, with few obvious front runners in the field, is certainly a possibility this year. On the other hand, deteriorating ground conditions will help him.
In contrast, an early dawdle might suit Grandouet who appears to have a fine turn of foot though the fact he has stood so little racing in the last two years is a worry.
Binocular's stable-companion travels very strongly and can quicken well, though he hasn't always convinced all the way up the Cheltenham hill.
Countrywide Flame (beaten by Rock On Ruby at Doncaster) and Cinders And Ashes were both novice winners at this meeting last year and could run better than their current odds suggest returning to the same arena.
Earlier, the Racing Post Arkle Trophy looks set to produce an intriguing clash between Simonsig, winner of the Neptune Novices' Hurdle last year, and the mighty Overturn who is perhaps the best triple purpose horse in racing history.
Simonsig appears to have enormous ability and speed but his shortage of chasing experience is a possible worry and he will need to jump very fluently to stay in touch with his rival who traditionally bombs off in front wearing his heart on his bridle.
Overturn, the winner of top handicaps on the Flat, good hurdle races (as well as finishing second in last year's Champion Hurdle) and impressive over fences so far, is a horse to die for. The ground might be a bit softer than ideal but, even so, a clean round of jumping could make him very hard to catch and really test Simonsig's claims to greatness
Smart Irish novice Arvika Ligeonniere is another talented front runner but might also be pushed to keep tabs on Overturn and there has been a suggestion (in my humble view) that, in his earlier races this season, he might be better on a right handed course.
As ever, the meeting begins with the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle in which My Tent Or Yours looks set to start a short-priced favourite following his demolition of some useful handicappers in last month's Betfair Hurdle at Newbury.
Nicky Henderson's gelding looks an awesome individual with any amount of potential but he does take a very strong hold and the likely fast gallop here might test his reserves up the hill.
Off a slow pace at Newbury, he was always galloping over the opposition and perhaps he will just be the best horse here whatever way the race is run.
However, at such short odds, there may be better value elsewhere and Dodging Bullets, who finished fourth in the Triumph Hurdle last year, is appealing in that he is a second season novice.
This likeable sort has done little wrong this season and ran well enough I thought behind Darlan in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton - form which must give him a leading chance.
He is preferred to the Irish pair Jezki (who didn't come up the hill in the bumper last year) and Un Atout whose odds-on-winning form in very soft ground is hard to assess.
In the JLT Specialty Handicap Chase, Fruity O'Rooney is fancied to go one better than last year when caught by Alfie Sherrin on the run-in.
Gary Moore's charge is another game front-runner and is set to race off a similar mark this time. His stable has been in very good form recently and a second to the well-handicapped Katenko here in January proved both his well-being and compatibility with Cheltenham.