It was entirely fitting that Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day fixture should provide a glimpse of things to come with youngsters Sean Bowen and Jamie Bargary shining in the saddle, but ultimately it was an old hand, Rock On Ruby, who, not for the first time and probably not for the last, stole the show.
The 2012 Champion Hurdle winner failed subsequently to take to fences, but is now carving out a new career as a staying hurdler. Two and a half miles seems to be his best distance these days, but there is no race for him at that trip at the Cheltenham Festival in March, so it looks likely he will a further step up in distance to three miles for the World Hurdle.
Noel Fehily, rounding off a quite wonderful festive week – following his triumph aboard Silviniaco Conti in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, another Grade One success on Parlour Games in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury on Monday and then the birth of his second child, Michael – was as impressed as he has ever been with Rock On Ruby, whom he has ridden since his Champion Hurdle win.
“He’s 10 years old today but, if anything, he’s getting better,” Fehily said. “The ground was tacky and there was a strong headwind, but he won cosily.”
The winning trainer, Harry Fry, added: “He has such a good record at Cheltenham that it would be a sin not to run him at the Festival. He’s still showing the younger horses how it’s done.”
The favourite Vaniteux, beaten two and a half lengths in second, lacked the stamina to match the winner up the final hill, but his rider, Barry Geraghty, is still buzzing at the prospect of Sprinter Sacre’s comeback at Ascot later this month, after the 2013 Champion Chase winner, sidelined for more than a year, sparkled in a Newbury workout this week.
“He felt great, full of himself,” Geraghty said. “The strut is back. He’s going round the place like Muhammad Ali, just like he used to.”
Bargary, a 7lb claimer with just five winners to his name, was a last-minute replacement on the Grade Three feature chase favourite Splash Of Ginge, when intended rider Ryan Hatch fractured a collar-bone in the previous contest and he seized the opportunity with a confident and competent display on the bold-jumping novice.
Splash Of Ginge might now be aimed at the JLT Chase at the Festival, but that is also the target for Ptit Zig, who again looked a bit special when beating Champagne West by six lengths in the Grade Two Dipper Novices’ Chase.
Paul Nicholls sees Ptit Zig as a Cheltenham Gold Cup horse one day and he is definitely one to follow in the meantime, as is the runner-up, who at 20-1 looks overpriced for the RSA Chase at the Festival.
Nicholls also scored with Grand National hope Mon Parrain, ridden by Bowen, who then won aboard his father Peter’s Rolling Maul to complete a big-priced double, hot on the heels of last Saturday’s Chepstow treble.Reuse content