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Last Updated: 03/02/13 2:09pm
Rock On Ruby: Clashes with Darlan and Countrywide Flame
Reigning Champion Hurdler Rock On Ruby tops a small but select field for Monday's 32 Red Hurdle at Doncaster.
Harry Fry's stable star has run just once this season, finishing third behind Zarkandar and Grandouet in the Stan James International Hurdle at Cheltenham, and faces another stern test despite only three rivals opposing him.
Fry is delighted to get a second run of the campaign into Rock On Ruby before he defends his crown next month.
"At the beginning of the week we were thinking Wincanton or not running at all but we definitely wanted a run, if we could, between now and March," the Dorset trainer told www.stanjames.com.
"The ground is drying there all the time so it's a great opportunity, timing-wise, to get a run in before March. It'll take him to the next level and put the extra edge on him that he needs to be in with a chance of retaining his crown.
"You'd have to say a trial race isn't really going to be run to our strengths, whereas a strong out-and-out gallop like in the Champion Hurdle will be. You can get a bit of a dawdle to begin with and it can turn into a sprint. Obviously we'll be trying make sure that doesn't happen but we could end up doing all the donkey work, which we know isn't our forte.
"With the speed Darlan showed in the Christmas Hurdle, you'd have to say the ball's in his court. Countrywide Flame's no mug either, especially on what he did at Newcastle in the soft."
Countrywide Flame was only fourth behind Darlan at Kempton, but his trainer John Quinn believes his stable star will only be seen at his best when ground conditions improve.
"He's fit and well and schooled well the other day, so I'm looking forward to running him on Monday," said the North Yorkshire handler.
"The ground will be more suitable than what he's been running on so far this season and I do think once the ground really dries up in the spring he'll be even better. I think he'll run a good race on Monday, but it's not Cheltenham and that's what we're really looking forward to.
"We know he loves Cheltenham, he showed that in the Triumph Hurdle last year and as I was saying to someone the other day, if he hadn't kicked the last hurdle out of the ground he'd have won the Triumph Hurdle by six lengths. Monday is a good opportunity to get him out again on a bit of nice ground, so we'll see how we go."
Connections of the Nicky Henderson-trained Darlan are looking forward to getting a run into the six-year-old before he goes for Champion Hurdle glory in March.
"It's a competitive little race. It's great they have put on the race and the ground might not be too bad there," said Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus.
"It's nice to see a good field, it's great to be able to get the run into him and we hope he runs well."