Hennessy's gangly recruit destined to join elite ranks
Rubi Light's continued development as a chaser faces its biggest obstacle yet in Wednesday's Lexus Chase, writes Ronan Groome
Robbie Hennessy stood in the parade ring at Gowran Park earlier this season full of anticipation and excitement. He had Rubi Light spot on for his seasonal reappearance. He watched his horse cruise in front, he watched him sail from fence to fence in spectacular fashion and he watched him pull clear of the champion chaser Sizing Europe.
Then his heart stopped. Rubi Light came to the last, got it all wrong, bounced off the top of the fence and took a crashing fall, landing on his neck before sliding across the greasy turf.
Hennessy was shocked, he never thought he'd see Rubi Light fall. Davy Russell was in a similar state, he couldn't even speak to the trainer when he came back in.
Russell rang Hennessy later that evening to apologise. He told the trainer he should have ridden the horse into the fence; let him do what he was good at. Instead he let the six-year-old run down the fence, which stopped his momentum and disrupted his rhythm. Hennessy appreciated the gesture.
There are not many positives you can take from a last-fence fall, however Rubi Light had the champion chaser beaten, and if you needed any more evidence of Sizing Europe's quality or form, you would find it in his next two races, second in the Champion Chase at Down Royal and impressive winner of the Tingle Creek at Sandown. Still, Robbie Hennessy was just glad to see his young horse get back up.
"I've seen horses getting killed from an easier fall, how he managed to get up okay I'll never know," he says. "It rained non-stop before the race and that might have been the saviour because he just skimmed off the surface when he came down. Thank God he was okay."
The horse was indeed okay. In fact, he was bouncing around the yard again the next day, not even stiff.
Hennessy thought about sending him to Down Royal for a rematch with Sizing Europe, and he thought about taking on the big boys in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, but he just wasn't happy with Rubi Light's work. The horse wasn't 100 per cent and you need to be 100 per cent for those races.
Instead he kept him for the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown. He was in tip-top shape for that and he rewarded his trainer's patience with a fine performance.
He led the whole way, as is his wont, and jumped carefully but well, which is no harm according to Hennessy. He had everything off the bridle before the straight and even though he got tired in front and the high-class Joncol came at him hard, he never looked like getting beaten.
The time he clocked was all of 15 seconds faster than the beginners' chase run over the same distance earlier on the card, and Rubi Light did it from the front, did it the hard way. It was a performance that allowed the words 'Gold Cup' to be mentioned.
It was Robbie's friend Phillip Carberry who told him about Rubi Light. The pair had become good friends through their association with Sublimity, owned by Robbie's father Bill. Carberry rode Sublimity to Champion Hurdle success for John Carr and then to Irish Champion Hurdle success for Robbie, just his second ever runner as a trainer.
Carberry was moving to France to ride at Francois Cottin's and Robbie asked him to let him know if he saw any good horses for sale. He found Rubi Light.
There was no need for Hennessy to make the trip, he trusted Carberry's judgement and asked the jockey to buy the horse if he could.
But when this awkward-looking four-year-old stumbled out of his horse box, Hennessy was left scratching his head. The horse looked fit alright, you could clearly see the outlines of his ribs along his side but his whole frame was something of a gangly-looking teenager, the equivalent of something you might see on the sidelines of an under 16 GAA match.
He rang Carberry.
"What the heck are you after sending me?"
On top of all the worries about Rubi Light's physical condition, there was a technical problem too. Because the son of Network had won a race over fences in France, it meant he was ineligible to be a novice chaser in Ireland.
The race he won in France was only a 'mickey mouse' race, with just three runners and he had won by 30 lengths but it was a chase and that was that. Hennessy was stuck with a novice that wasn't a novice.
Carberry replied: "Just give him time."
Hennessy didn't have to wait long. He left his latest recruit in the sand ring to have a roll, before heading off down to start the morning routine. He was walking towards the gallops when he heard the clapping of hooves behind him. There was Rubi Light galloping towards him.
Robbie went back later to inspect the sand ring. The five-bar gate was still closed and there was no way out via the wooden wall that surrounded the ring. The area wasn't big either, there wasn't much of a run-up, but the young horse had somehow managed to clear the gate.
"We knew he could jump then," Hennessy says, laughing. "It happened again only two months ago except this time it was over an electric wire. We have to get someone to watch him whenever he goes in there now."
Hennessy watched his big gangly teenager mature over the next year. He began to fill out his frame, and as each week went by he started to look more and more like a quality chaser in the making.
He managed to win his first two chases, two pillar-to-post victories and two fantastic rounds of jumping. He booked his Cheltenham ticket with a classy performance on bottomless ground at Gowran Park in the Grade Two Red Mills Chase.
The Ryanair Chase was the only feasible target for him. It wasn't fair that he had to run there in reality. It was a bit like being a junior athlete being forced to race against seniors at the Olympics. And Hennessy was unsure about the ground as well, as it had dried up quickly during the week.
Andrew Lynch had been riding there all week and he said it was safe, so they took their chance. "He ran a cracker; it really was some run for a horse in his first year. He just made a mistake at the fence before the straight and lost his position on the turn. Andrew got off and said if the ground had been soft, they would have won," says Hennessy proudly.
Rubi Light is now reaping the rewards of his first season over fences. He goes to the Lexus Chase on Wednesday with a massive chance of taking another Grade One and of laying down a marker for the Gold Cup. Given that this is the gelding's first start over three miles, his chance is being billed on the classic racing question of: 'Will he stay?'
"Davy Russell says he'll stay, Andrew Lynch says he'll stay, Phillip Carberry says he'll stay, and these are the experts," says Hennessy. "We're more than hopeful he can be there at the end and if he is, he'll take one hell of a beating."
Robbie Hennessy will be looking on again, full of anticipation and excitement.
Sunday Indo Sport