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Harry Fry does it his way for Rock On encore

Assistant who prepared last year's champion hurdler defends title as successful rookie trainer

If triumph and disaster are the twin impostors, both have conspired in turn to suppress the identity of Harry Fry. Only now, perhaps, can the youngest trainer in the country truly make a name for himself.

Not that he has been made to wait unduly. At just 26, after all, he will saddle a defending champion hurdler at Cheltenham on Tuesday. But the fact remains that Fry has been somewhat overlooked even when escorting Rock On Ruby into the winner's enclosure.

Last year, at the Festival, he was still an anonymous assistant to the champion trainer. Few realised how marginal a role Paul Nicholls would claim in the preparation of Rock On Ruby, stabled across Somerset at a satellite yard supervised by Fry. Nicholls was at pains to give his beanpole lieutenant due credit, but it was not until the summer that the anomaly was redressed. Fry would take out a licence in his own right, and retain Rock On Ruby.

When the horse won his rehearsal at Doncaster last month, however, Fry was again denied the headlines – this time by the sickening tragedy that claimed the life of Darlan as he came to challenge at the last. Fry felt as sheepish in success as had Nicholls the previous March. "You know, deep down, that it will happen to us all," he says. "But it's still always a shock. When it happens to a horse of that potential, it's devastating. Nobody would ever want to win in that situation. You want the best horse to win."

At the same time, his own horse's performance – taken in isolation – unequivocally satisfied Fry that he could again prove best on the day that really mattered, in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. "For us it was job done, onwards and upwards," he says. "His whole season has been geared to 12 March, and he's really coming to himself now."

Remarkably, Fry has had nine winners from just 18 runners since 1 January. These include Opening Batsman in the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton – where the runner-up was saddled by Nicholls. Both men take pride in their roles, as mentor and apprentice. Fry had attended one lecture at agricultural college before ringing for a post as pupil assistant at Ditcheat. "My parents were on holiday and we managed two brief satellite conversations," Fry recalls. "In the first I said I was going off to see Paul. They said: 'OK, but don't rush into anything.' In the second, I told them I'd just finished my first morning at Ditcheat. That was the beginning of four unbelievable years. Kauto Star was just coming into his prime, Denman won his first Hennessy, Big Buck's came along. Paul was prepared to delegate. That meant you could expect a proper bollocking, if you got it wrong – but he gave you a great opportunity to learn. He has such dedication, it's almost an obsession."

With his own, youthful intensity, Fry owes his other great debt to Richard Barber, his landlord, whose brother set Nicholls up at Ditcheat. Now 6ft 3in, Fry first arrived in Barber's yard as a 13-year-old with delusions of becoming a jockey. "Richard took one look at my feet and hands and said I could forget all about that," he recalls. "When I dislocated my shoulder a fifth time I could see he might be right."

After four years at Ditcheat, Fry was posted back to run the satellite yard. With a less severe gallop, it was an ideal academy for younger horses – one of whom turned out to be Rock On Ruby. Having bought him as an unbroken four-year-old, Barber sold him on to a syndicate named the Festival Goers. As it happens, they meant Glastonbury, rather than Cheltenham. "The idea was just to have a bit of fun at our local tracks," Fry says. "So words can't describe how things have turned out. And because he's not a traditional Champion Hurdle type, but a store horse who has come through bumpers, he is still maturing, still improving."

With a background of his own in point-to-pointing, this is exactly the type Fry relishes. "I do like to start them untouched, as a work of art waiting to be produced," he says. "Then you know that from being broken in, to their first schooling session, to their first run, they've done it your way."

And it is that personal imprint he seeks to leave upon the Festival this year – albeit that obviously brings a different kind of pressure. "Last year we did slip under the radar a bit," Fry says. "But I feel very lucky to have a horse of this calibre as a flag-bearer, so early in my career. He sees it out so well. Last year I did think he might be swallowed up after the last, having taken the race by the scruff of the neck. But he has actually gone away again. And that drives us on more than anything, really – the chance to go back and prove him a true champion."

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Royal Bajan (5.00 Southwell) Contested an excessive pace last time, but now returns to a surface that prompted a career best on his one previous visit.

Next best

If In Doubt (3.00 Wincanton) Appears to have been set a very fair mark on his progressive form in novice company.

One to watch

Alderwood (Tom Mullins) Is 8lb lower over fences than when winning the County Hurdle last year and must be monitored on drying ground back at Cheltenham next week.