Thursday 14 December 2017

Forgotten champion still flying under the radar

Tipperary breeder John O'Dwyer has good reason to keep tabs on Rock On Ruby's rise to the very top, writes Aisling Crowe

On a May day amid the lush rolling pastures of the Golden Vale, a future champion took his first tentative steps on the road to glory. Stony View gazed on her newborn foal as he made a wobbly start on his life's journey that spring morning in 2005. Breeder John O'Dwyer was pleased with the colt and that winter he brought the young foal on the next stage of his voyage, to the sales in Tattersalls.

Six years later, O'Dwyer made the journey to Cheltenham to see the foal, now a strapping bay hurdler, go down fighting in the Neptune Investments Novices' Hurdle. A second place at Cheltenham was the biggest thrill of his career so far. O'Dwyer knew that he bred a good one but little did he suspect that a year later he would return to witness his foal being crowned champion hurdler.

Rock On Ruby's star didn't shine brightly from birth, but O'Dwyer remembers watching a lovely youngster develop over the summer.

"He was a nice foal but there was nothing particularly special about him. I brought him to the foal sales that November and sold him on. Then the man who bought him sold him as a four-year-old in Doncaster. The Barbers bought him and they formed the Festival Goers to race him."

Breeders take a keen interest in how their foals progress, it's how pedigrees are developed and family reputations enhanced. A top winner for a dam increases her value and makes her foals sought after. A Cheltenham winner sends the broodmare into another stratosphere.

O'Dwyer is in regular contact with the Festival Goers. Formed by a group of friends who commemorated Bruce Springsteen's Glastonbury set by purchasing a racehorse, they called the son of Oscar after a shop one of them used to run and not after Ruby Walsh, although Ruby and Ruby have teamed up for three victories.

"I was over there (Cheltenham) two years ago and got talking to the Barbers. Ever since then Jason (Barber) keeps me in touch with how Rock On Ruby is doing, he rings me and gives me updates on how the horse is doing. He's very positive and straight.

"When it comes to his races he runs exactly as they say he will and Harry Fry (trainer) really knows what he's doing," he explains. O'Dwyer keeps six broodmares at his stud farm in the heart of the Tipperary countryside. Stony View is still there, joined by two of her daughters.

It's a family he knows completely and traces the tree back through the generations with the quiet certainty of a man who has a deep well of knowledge to draw on.

"Most of them are our own families that we have brought up along, keeping the fillies. My father originally bought the dam of Stony View, Stony Ground. They were basically Flat families and it was such a competitive game that we went towards breeding National Hunt horses, hoping they would have a bit of speed. It's taken a long time for it to work but it has and we're delighted.

"Stony View is the star of the bunch. She's the dam of five winners, three of her foals have got black type and she's a very smart mare. She never raced, she got an infection as a two-year-old and it took a lot of healing and time to get her right, but she turned out to be a very nice mare."

Stony View is in to foal to Oscar, Rock On Ruby's sire, and due at the end of the month, while his full sister Misty Heather gave birth to a filly last month and their other sister Misty Glade is due to foal next month. So the family continues to grow.

The sages predicted that the human Ruby would win last year's Champion Hurdle and in the rush to discover why his mount Hurricane Fly was eclipsed, Ruby the horse was forgotten. In a sense O'Dwyer wasn't perturbed because Rock On Ruby had made an unequivocal statement.

"I only go an odd time to Cheltenham and it was unbelievable. I've been over there the last two years and it's fantastic," his voice fizzles with joy as he recalls watching his horse climb that famous hill in front. "I tried to keep a lid on things but when I think of it now, I still find it hard to believe it happened. I was absolutely delighted."

Rock On Ruby has been glossed over again as pundits search for the champion hurdler's identity. Even though he is the defending champion other stars are put forward as potential winners.

A quiet man, O'Dwyer knows his horse has always risen above the din on the track, the way he likes it. He expects Rock On Ruby to make himself heard again on Tuesday and will be there to witness the next step on a journey that has taken Rock On Ruby all the way from a Tipperary paddock to the Cheltenham winners' enclosure.

"Hopefully we'll have a good run again. If the ground and everything stays as it is he will have a great chance.

"He finished very well last year and that was the bit I loved about his run, that when the other horses came to him he went away from them but you never know. Racing is racing."

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