Doncaster stages Champion Hurdle ‘trial’

Rock on Ruby ridden by Noel Fehily
Rock on Ruby ridden by Noel Fehily
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YORKSHIRE will stage a Champion Hurdle dress rehearsal next week after a string of contenders – headed by Rock On Ruby – were declared to run at Doncaster on Monday.

Possible rivals to Harry Fry’s hero, the reigning Cheltenham champion, include top-class hurdlers of the calibre of Grandouet, Darlan and Countrywide Flame.

Even though the 32Red Hurdle only enjoys Listed status after Doncaster agreed to stage an extra meeting to compensate for the bad weather which wiped out much of the National Hunt programme in January, it promises to be a Grade One race in all bar name.

The seven-race card attracted a phenomenal 227 entries, with Rock On Ruby heading 17 possibilities for the afternoon’s feature.

“We have given him the entry,” said Rock On Ruby’s rookie handler Harry Fry, who served his apprenticeship with champion trainer Paul Nicholls before branching out on his own.

“Although I need to speak to the owners and discuss things with them before we finalise anything, I would say at this stage – looking at the forecast and the way the ground is at Doncaster – he is quite likely to run.

“We’ve already said the ground at Sandown tomorrow is going to be too testing for him. We don’t know what the ground is going to be like at Wincanton for the Kingwell Hurdle on February 16 and the Doncaster race fits in perfectly timing-wise ahead of Cheltenham.

“The BHA must be applauded. It’s a great initiative to get this race on having already lost the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock.

“Noel Fehily came in to school the horse yesterday and we’re very happy with him. He’s ready to run and we’re really looking forward to racing on Monday.”

Rock On Ruby has only raced once this season, finishing a close third to Zarkandar and Grandouet at Cheltenham in December on unsuitably heavy ground.

Significantly, the Nicky Henderson-trained Grandouet is another intriguing Doncaster entry – and he could be joined by stablemate Darlan, who returned to form in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle when beating the Yorkshire-trained Countrywide Flame, a dual Grade One winner.

Darlan is due to reappear at Sandown tomorrow, though the hurdles track at the Esher course needs to pass an early morning inspection today.

Even if the Sandown race is salvaged, there is a possibility that Darlan will head to Town Moor.

“I believe if Sandown is on, the horse will go to Sandown,” said Frank Berry, racing manager to Darlan’s owner JP McManus.

“It’s nice to have the Doncaster race there if we need it.”

The Nicholls stable has both Celestial Halo, the 2009 Champion Hurdle runner-up, and Brampour thrown into the mix, while Tolworth Hurdle winner and leading novice Melodic Rendezvous is an interesting possible runner for Jeremy Scott and Nick Scholfield, one of the riding stars of the 2012-13 season.

As for Countrywide Flame, his Malton-based trainer John Quinn had indicated that Kelso’s Morebattle Hurdle in mid-February was his intended Cheltenham prep race before Doncaster stepped into the breach.

The only disappointment is that the card does not include a substitute race for those horses, like Ferdy Murphy’s De Boitron, who had been primed for the Sky Bet Chase last weekend.

Monday’s meeting, which will see free entry for badge holders from every racecourse in the country, will be the culmination of three jumps meetings in four days locally – Catterick’s card today will be followed by Wetherby’s fixture tomorrow that features the Towton Novices Chase. Doncaster is also due to race next Thursday.

Significantly, Darlan’s jockey AP McCoy – the 17-time champion – makes a rare foray to North Yorkshire today where he has three rides for trainer Jonjo O’Neill.

The first, Tell Me Y, is owned by Trevor Hemmings. His remaining mounts, the aply-named Get Back In Line and Kandari, run in the iconic green and gold hoops of McManus.

McCoy’s booking has prompted much head-scratching about whether he has ridden a winner previously at Catterick, a track that continues to elude the likes of Tom Scudamore for example.

“Yes, a long time ago, but I can’t remember the horse’s name. Sorry,” he texted yesterday in response to an inquiry from the Yorkshire Post.

This, after all, is a jockey who rode his 150th winner of the season at Leicester on Wednesday. It was the 16th occasion in 17 years – a phenomenal record of consistency – in which he has passed the landmark in a sport where 50 winners in a single campaign is still regarded as a benchmark of excellence.

The only year in which McCoy, champion jockey every year since 1996 and now closing in on 4,000 winners, did not reach the 150-winner mark was during an injury-hit 2007-08 when 140 victories were still sufficient to deny his perennial rival Richard Johnson.

Southwell has received the go-ahead to resume racing on Tuesday after the track finally passed a BHA inspection.

Racing has not taken place at the Nottinghamshire venue since November 20 due to flooding which affected the spectator facilities as well as the Fibresand surface.