Inspection takes place ahead of Cheltenham

Racecourse soft in parts after freezing conditions overnight

Groundstaff remove the frost protection covers during Champion Day at Cheltenham today. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Groundstaff remove the frost protection covers during Champion Day at Cheltenham today. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images


An inspection was taking place at Cheltenham this morning to see if racing will go ahead after further freezing overnight.

There was a wind chill of minus 12 degrees on Monday night at Prestbury Park, and organisers fear patches of frost formed under protective covers laid across the course over the weekend.

The inspection begins at 10.30 am. The going is soft, frozen in a few places under the covers and also soft on the cross country course, which is frozen in a few places too, according to clerk of the course Simon Claisse.

"It was minus 12 degrees in the wind chill just before midnight according to our weather station and it was still minus 9 degrees at 5 am," he said.

"That enabled the frost to get under the covers a bit. 90 per cent of the course is fine but obviously we cannot clear the course as fit to race until everything is 100 per cent ok."

The forecast is temperatures to reach up to 3 degrees by noon, leaving him "optimistic" about racing going ahead.

The most repeated stat on the run-in to today’s feature is that only one horse – Comedy Of Errors – has ever regained the Champion Hurdle crown: overlooked is how a win for Rock On Ruby will make him number 13 to successfully defend the title.

Whatever he does, it seems to be this defending champ’s lot to swerve the spotlight, a comment that can also be applied to his jockey. In terms of profile, Rock On Ruby and Noel Fehily are a perfect match – major talents rated by those in the know, but comparatively under-appreciated by those who ought to know better. Back-to-back Champion Hurdle victories will make confinement to the shadows impossible.

Fehily will be happy about that for Rock On Ruby. The dozen names who’ve gone before him comprise the hurdling game’s elite: hat-trick heroes such as Istabraq, Sir Ken and Persian War: double-winning champs like Monksfield, Sea Pigeon, Night Nurse, all the way back to Insurance 80 years ago. One title can be dismissed as a fluke: two make the real-deals.

“He definitely hasn’t got the credit he deserves,” the 37- year-old Cork -born jockey says. “He got overlooked last year. It was all about how Hurricane Fly didn’t perform, and others didn’t perform. But the fact is he was best on the day.”

Single success

No one realises that better than Fehily. After years spent at racing’s coalface, driving 50,000 miles a year to ride often mediocre horses, and with a single festival success to his name on the 50/1 Silver Jaro in the 2008 County Hurdle, stepping in for the Rock On Ruby “spare” became the defining moment of his career. That he greeted it with an understated articulacy was typical of a man who learned all about the hard knocks the horse game can deliver right from when he was a boy riding in the pony-racing heartland of west Cork.

There mightn’t have been any fist-pumping or dramatic crowd-milking moments on the return to the most famous winners circle in jump racing. That’s not Fehily’s style. But he relished it, knowing well how steep the downsides can be.

Just a couple of seasons before that he had been sprung from the jockey pack by Paul Nicholls to team up with the cream of his stable stars when Ruby Walsh was out injured.

It was a tribute in itself to be asked by Britain’s champion trainer, and the rewards included spectacular wins on the likes of Master Minded. And then, just weeks before a King George date with Kauto Star, Fehily damaged his wrist and the big-time opportunity looked to have evaporated.

Grand fall

Typical then that a month after his greatest triumph, Fehily fell in the Grand National, and spent six months on the injury sidelines. There was a time when that would have been a major blow. But a Champion Hurdle success means memories can lengthen in what can be a terribly forgetful sport. Since resuming, the Corkman has been flying.

Charlie Longsden, who I’m attached to, is having a fantastic season and I’m also lucky enough to have a great strike-rate riding for Harry Fry who’s a real up-and-coming trainer,” Fehily says.

Fry famously did all the work with Rock On Ruby last season but as assistant to Nicholls, had to doff his cap to the champion for official record-keeping purposes. Nicholls was generous in his acknowledgement but a win today would put an official seal on Fry’s burgeoning reputation.

Fry has been making increasingly confident noises about Rock On Ruby’s chance in the last week, something unusual considering even the horse’s warm-up effort last month got overshadowed by the sad death of Darlan. “It was sad to see Darlan go down but my fella did what he had to do. We had to concentrate on our job,” Fehily says. “I suppose he got overlooked a bit again that day, but he can only do what he has to.”

Rock On Ruby’s jockey has built a career on the same unflashy principle. That major success has come comparatively late to Fehily might make him relish it more, but it’s hard to know. Sweeping statements are not his style, especially about how long more he can continue in such a hard game.

“I’ll keep going as long as I’m feeling good and riding okay,” he says. “And of course if can keep clear of bad injuries.”

And maybe for as long as Rock On Ruby keeps surprising people.