There is, admittedly, a credulous tendency on the Turf to discover the imprint of greatness the moment a hoof leaves the grass. But the opening skirmishes of the Festival made it as difficult to resist some such instinct, on behalf of one horse, as to conclude that another had been prematurely anointed.
Sprinter Sacre may strictly need to pass more exacting examinations than he did here yesterday, when faced by just five rivals, but everything he does has the lustre of genuine stardom. Conversely, the failure of Hurricane Fly to land similarly short odds behind Rock On Ruby in the biggest race of the day should not encourage anyone suddenly to doubt a reputation established in seven consecutive Grade One wins.
One way or another, this was simply not his day. Whether or not Hurricane Fly showed his very best form, in third, is a question for another time. For the Stan James Champion Hurdle became a race that was all about giving credit where it is due – and the supporting cast a moment in the sun.
As a young hurdler on the rise, Rock On Ruby has every right to prove a lasting champion. For now, all you can say is that the men who rode him, and supervised his preparation, are overdue the sort of plaudits that tend to be dispensed so freely to horses.
That may seem incongruous, given that he is formally under the aegis of Paul Nicholls. But Rock On Ruby is actually stabled nowhere near Ditcheat, in the champion trainer's satellite yard down near the Dorset border. And Nicholls was quick to stress that day-to-day responsibility for the horse rests with Richard Barber and his young assistant there, Harry Fry. Though he will hardly be effacing a first Champion Hurdle from his own CV, Nicholls emphasised that this was a triumph for teamwork.
It was especially fitting, then, that a horse bearing such a name should be ridden by Noel Fehily. Nicholls will certainly sense that he has discharged a debt here, having offered this understated, seasoned horseman an unexpected breakthrough when Ruby Walsh was injured last season, only for Fehily to be cruelly sidelined by a fall of his own. By the time Fehily returned, Daryl Jacob had been appointed Walsh's understudy.
But with Walsh committed to the reigning champion, and Nicholls mustering no fewer than four of the 10 runners, Fehily was able to prise open the door anew. Jacob was riding the stable's No 1 hope, Zarkandar, but Rock On Ruby had run Binocular close at Kempton on Boxing Day and was thought likely to prefer this stiffer track.
Sure enough, he proved the only runner able to pass the front-running outsider, Overturn, who had gradually forced his pursuers off the bridle. Hurricane Fly travelled strongly under restraint, as usual, tracked through from the rear by Binocular. But the favourite had been sweating before the start and, making his move down the hill, suddenly came off the bridle. As Walsh reached for the whip, a shudder of dismay hummed through the crowd. Few had envisaged this. Some had speculated that he might yet be outstayed, on the climb to the post. Instead he was regrouping all too painfully even as Fehily, always handy, took another slick leap two out as the cue to open up. Courageously, Hurricane Fly got himself in with a shout at the last, but would have to settle for holding Binocular and Zarkandar at bay as Rock On Ruby maintained an advantage of just under four lengths over Overturn.
"It's a big team thing," Nicholls emphasised. "Harry worked for me before joining Richard full-time and everyone deserves praise. We've had a little cough in our yard, and we're not where we want to be at the moment, but the Seaborough horses have been flying and this horse looked so well beforehand. I feel privileged to be part of it."
Fehily said that the winner had idled in front. "But he had winged three out, winged two out," he said. "My horse stays, and I wasn't going to get done for toe. I was going to make sure I was bang there and make it a test."
As for Hurricane Fly, Willie Mullins was careful to pay decorous tribute to the winner, while also reporting that Walsh had felt the horse "flat" coming down the hill. "He got the horse into a nice position again going to the last, but he had to use up all his petrol to do it," the trainer said. "It was disappointing, but even with the best horses this day is always going to come."
That is a caveat that might be profitably heeded by all who had already witnessed a performance that can surely not be surpassed all week. Sprinter Sacre had arrived for the Racing Post Arkle Chase as the most flamboyant novice of recent years, and his rivals had pinned their hopes only on the possibility that he might prove too exuberant for his own good. He relaxed beautifully for Barry Geraghty in third until jumping his way upsides at the final ditch, his prodigious leap drawing a panicked blunder from Al Ferof. Thereafter he simply coasted clear, pricking his ears as though to ask whether anyone might actually require him to exert himself at some stage. Geraghty dismounted and grinned at Nicky Henderson, telling the trainer: "You don't often school a horse in a Grade One."
"A lot has been said and written about this horse and we did rather feel he had to live up to that billing," Henderson said. "But I think we can say he did just that."
His success gave the trainer a share of Fulke Walwyn's record of 40 Festival wins. He cast his mind back to the days when he worked as assistant to Walwyn's neighbour, Fred Winter. "I feel rather humbled," he said. "All those wonderful horses he had, I feel a bit of a cheapskate. We've a fourth day nowadays, too. At Fred's we used to call Fulke's 'the lot over the wall'. They were two legendary people. And legendary days."
Some day, perhaps, people may yet look back on this week and say the same.
Tip table: Our Experts
Each day during the Festival, our panel of experts predict their 1-2-3 for the day's big race - at the end of the week we will have a tipping champion. They earn three points for predicting the winner, and a point for each horse coming second or third. A correct 1-2-3 will earn 10 points. Rock On Ruby sent James Corrigan and John Cobb off to a flyer yesterday in the Champion Hurdle.
1. Rock On Ruby
3. Hurricane Fly
Winners; 2nd/3rd; Pts
James Corrigan 1; 1; 4
John Cobb 1; 1; 4
Chris McGrath 0; 2; 2
James Lawton 0; 1; 1
Sue Montgomery 0; 1; 1
Hyperion 0 1 1
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