by MICHAEL SUTTON There will be few more popular winners at the Cheltenham Festival than if Rock On Ruby wins the World Hurdle. The Festival at Cheltenham in 2015 is already shaping up to be an illustrious roll call of former winners. There may be no Quevega this year but Willie Mullins will still be sending Hurricane Fly and Champagne Fever over in search of their respective third Festival successes.
Sprinter Sacre is back and will be bidding for the Champion Chase again, while Bobs Worth and Lord Windermere, who have both done the RSA Chase-Gold Cup double, will be tackling the Blue Riband again.
Bidding to join those horses as dual Festival winners is Rock On Ruby, who will be heading into uncharted territory over three miles in the World Hurdle.
The furthest distance Rock On Ruby has run over in his career was on his first visit to the Festival when beaten a short head by First Lieutenant in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle over two miles, five furlongs in 2011.
A year later, Rock On Ruby was down to two miles to win the Champion Hurdle, with Hurricane Fly back in third. The tables were turned in 2013, though, as Rock On Ruby finished second to Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle.
Last year, Rock On Ruby had been switched to fences, but found everything happening too fast in the Arkle Chase over two miles. A bad early blunder ruined any chance of Rock On Ruby establishing a rhythm as he trailed home a distant eighth behind Western Warhorse.
That’s the only time the 10-year-old has been out of the first three in nine runs at Cheltenham and that run also proved to be Rock On Ruby’s last over fences. He reverted to hurdles to claim a fine second behind The New One at Aintree over two-and-a-half miles.
This season started with a third in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton over two miles. But it became obvious that the minimum trip was no longer suitable for Rock On Ruby.
Since then, Rock On Ruby has won twice over an extended two-and-a-half mile trip at Cheltenham. He was favoured by the weights when beating Nicky Henderson’s Volnay De Thaix in the four-runner Relkeel Hurdle in December.
Then, on New Year’s Day, it was another Henderson horse – Vaniteux – who took the runner’s-up spot as Rock On Ruby stayed on well up the hill.
That has convinced trainer Harry Fry to have a tilt at the World Hurdle, rather than just wait for Aintree.
“It is another big ask but one we’re looking forward to,” Fry told At The Races when confirming Rock On Ruby will go for the World Hurdle. “How can you sit at home with a horse with his record when everyone else is getting on with it?”
Fry is right when he says it is a big ask for Rock On Ruby to win the World Hurdle, especially on his first try over three miles.
The field will contain plenty of proven stayers, including last year’s World Hurdle winner More Of That, providing the Jonjo O’Neill inmate is back in form after an operation.
The first three home in the Cleeve Hurdle on Cheltenham’s Festival Trials Day – Saphir Du Rheu, Reve De Sivola and Un Temps Pour Tout – should all make it to the World Hurdle. And there are also the likes of Zarkandar to consider.
It is certainly going to be a competitive field for the World Hurdle. But there is no horse of the calibre of Big Buck’s in there, and there is no reason why Rock On Ruby can’t make his mark.
At his best, Rock On Ruby would have a touch too much class for the opposition.
Now that he’s 10, he probably isn’t as good as he used to be, especially if you were to try him over two miles again.
But he may still have enough speed to kick on after the last, if his stamina will then hold out up the Cheltenham hill.
The way he has finished off his races on his last two starts certainly merits a tilt at the World Hurdle and there won’t be many louder roars from the crowd if he claims his second Festival success.