If you have a point to prove, the biggest stage is probably the perfect platform. The record books state that Harry Fry has not yet trained a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, yet he knows exactly how it feels to do so. Two years ago he prepared Rock On Ruby to win the Champion Hurdle, but then the Dorset stable he presides over was an outpost of Paul Nicholls’ empire, and it was the seven-times champion’s name that went on the roll of honour.
On Tuesday, Fry will be back at the opening day of jump racing’s showcase occasion with Rock On Ruby, this time not as a trusted lieutenant, but as captain, in his second season with his own licence. Not that he begrudges at all Nicholls his Champion Hurdle victory – far from it – but there is no doubting the satisfaction that a solo walk into the hallowed winner’s circle would bring.
“Two years ago we were part of Paul’s team and lucky to be in that position,” said Fry, “and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t had the opportunity to run the satellite yard that housed Rock On Ruby.
“We all enjoyed that victory together and it was a day we’ll never forget. But now we’re out on our own we want to put our own marker down. We’re a young team and that’s what’s driving us.”
Fry, 27, once had aspirations as a jockey, before five dislocations of a shoulder in falls and his growth past six feet prompted the switch to training. He spent four years as a pupil assistant at Nicholls’ headquarters, Manor Farm at Ditcheat, before running the yard at Seaborough, and clearly listened at the knee of the master, for few beginners have made as big an impact in as short a time.
His first campaign produced 20 winners and this season his tally is already 28, at a strike rate of 35 per cent, the best on the leaderboard.
“Of all the things I learned from Paul,” said Fry, “the most important was attention to detail and focus. He and [head man] Clifford Baker never miss a beat. They are ultimate professionals and you realise that is the standard you have to get to in order to make a go of it in the sport.”
Rock On Ruby carries the colours of a syndicate headed by another of Fry’s mentors, the Dorset farmer and horseman Richard Barber, for whom he used to exercise ride horses as a schoolboy and who owns the Seaborough premises. The gelding will be running at the Festival for the fourth year in a row, having gone under by a short-head as a novice hurdler in 2012 and run second to Hurricane Fly in last year’s Champion Hurdle. This time, reinvented as a novice chaser, he goes for the Arkle Trophy.
“When he was emphatically beaten first time out over hurdles this season [by The New One, vying with Hurricane Fly for favouritism in a field of nine for Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle] we realised he had nothing more to prove, except he wasn’t the best any more and it was time for a change,” said Fry. “And he’s taken well to fences. He’s not the biggest, not a great big strapping chasing type, but he’s some athlete.”
The bay nine-year-old, two for two in chases, is second favourite for the novices’ two-mile crown, behind Irish raider Champagne Fever. And to add spice, another of his fancied rivals, Dodging Bullets, is trained by Nicholls.
Rock On Ruby’s record round the track is impeccable and the rapidly drying ground will be in his favour, but he is older than most to be taking up the bigger obstacles. But there may be a favourable omen, for though only one Champion Hurdle winner has won Tuesday’s race, Sir Ken in 1956, he, too, was nine.