Ruby a Rock steady bet at 10/1
Ben Linfoot with his ante-post preview of the Stan James Champion Hurdle following the entries.
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Looking at the entries for the Stan James Champion Hurdle it could be the race of the Cheltenham Festival.
Not only is it wide open with many of the leading lights showing similar ability, there's a healthy mix of past champions and promising up-and-comers that heighten anticipation ahead of the ultimate test for any hurdler.
Hurricane Fly heads the market at 7/2 and he's unbeaten since finishing third in last year's renewal.
For me, it's an easy decision to take him on at the prices. I'm of the opinion we did see the real Hurricane Fly when he was third in last year's Champion Hurdle and nothing he's done since has altered that view.
He's a very good horse, but the aura he seems to create by mopping up small-field races in Ireland makes him a false price in my eyes and I would be surprised if he doesn't find at least a couple too good once again.
The Nicky Henderson-trained pair of Darlan and Grandouet are much harder to dismiss.
At 4/1, though, Darlan isn't for me. He has a very good chance of winning the race and on the face of it he looked to have improved significantly when running away with the Christmas Hurdle.
Though he clearly won very impressively at Kempton I'm not convinced by the form and more importantly I'm not convinced by Darlan's suitability to Cheltenham.
He's been very impressive at Aintree and Kempton but he won a novice hurdle at Cheltenham hanging on by a nose, and, him apart, the Supreme Novices' he was second in last year isn't working out like a vintage renewal.
You might have questioned Grandouet's liking for Prestbury Park earlier in his career. He was well beaten in a Triumph Hurdle trial by Sam Winner and was then beaten up the hill by Zarkandar and Unaccompanied in the main event.
However, he won the International at Cheltenham in 2011 by four lengths from subsequent Champion Hurdle runner-up Overturn and then returned from niggling injuries in the same race after a year off with a pleasing run behind Zarkandar.
At 7/1 he's tempting as he looks very classy but the fact he's had just one run in the last year puts me off as he'll need to be right on his game in a race as fierce as this.
He'll have a prep somewhere but we're getting to the stage where he's bound to have one run in a small field, probably in bad ground, and he'd have to do something extraordinary for his current odds to collapse.
In any case, I think the horse to take out of the International Hurdle was last year's champion ROCK ON RUBY.
I don't think he got the credit he deserved for last year's success, a point underlined by the fact the third home Hurricane Fly is 7/2 in the market compared with the 10/1 you can get about Harry Fry's stable star.
If you watch last season's Champion Hurdle again you can see there was no fluke about his win. He travelled well off a strong pace just in behind Overturn and could be called the winner rounding the home turn.
Only Brave Inca has run a faster time than Rock On Ruby in the Champion Hurdle since the days of Istabraq, he was almost four lengths clear at the line and his advantage was reduced on the run-in.
He was subsequently beaten over two-and-a-half miles at Aintree but the point is a strongly-run two miles around Cheltenham is absolutely perfect for him.
I don't think you can say that about many of his main rivals. The likes of Darlan and Hurricane Fly might have a better turn of foot and are suited by races with a lack of pace on flatter tracks, but, for Rock On Ruby, he needs a proper test on a tough track over two miles.
In the International Hurdle he travelled really well and jumped fluently from a prominent position before tiring late on. He paddled over the last and the combination of heavy ground, a slower pace and not being fully tuned up counted against him.
Apart from last year's Champion Hurdle I think that race was the key trial and while you could easily make a case for any of the three principals from the International, Rock On Ruby appeals most and he's the biggest price of the trio.
Fry reports his charge to be a 'bigger and stronger' horse this season and says he's come on plenty for his International run.
If that's the case the rest have plenty to do to wrestle the crown from the reigning champion and now is as good a time as any to back him at 10s with a possible prep run at Sandown or Wincanton in the pipeline.
Of those at bigger prices, Peddlers Cross is worth considering at 40s as the 2011 runner-up is a danger to all if he can regain that sort of form while Pearl Swan and Grumeti bring strong juvenile form from last season to the table and are big prices due to long absences.
They could be anything yet but the percentage call in this, the most prestigious hurdle race on the planet, is to go with proven class and experience at the highest level.
And at 10/1, last year's highly impressive winner Rock On Ruby fits the bill.