IT is one of the more notable success stories in British racing right now and we should not be surprised to find a strong Irish influence.

But as significant the roles are of Ciara O’Connor in particular, and Noel Fehily too, make no mistake but that Harry Fry is the totem, a man who put a six-year education at the hands of a master to good use alongside his own inherent talent and ran and ran and ran.

There had to be something there for Paul Nicholls to take him on as a pupil-assistant at 19, and then let him run the new satellite yard at Seaborough.

That premises included many of the landlord Richard Barber’s point-to-pointers, but there were a number of Nicholls charges, too.

Rock On Ruby was one. They knew he could be good, just not how good. The public underrated him completely but when he drew away from the Champion Hurdle field in 2012, the evidence was conclusive.

At this juncture, it is worth recalling the inspired decision by Nicholls to pursue a staying hurdle route with Big Buck’s, after an underwhelming introduction to chasing. The British champion trainer is doing the same now with Saphir Du Rheu.

And so it is with Fry and Rock On Ruby. To be fair, the Oscar gelding started pretty well over the larger obstacles and trounced Mr Mole, who is now a Champion Chase contender, by 10 lengths in a two-horse race at Doncaster to make it two from two.

The Arkle was disastrous though, and remains only the second time in 24 runs that the remarkably consistent 10-year-old has been outside the top three. He has never been out of the frame over hurdles.

Rock On Ruby has relished the step up to two and a half miles but the three-mile World Hurdle represents a leap into the unknown.

“He’s full of life at the moment,” says Fry. “Last year, we were put in our place first time out by The New One and the owners involved in the syndicate were keen to try fences. It was a case of now or never. We tried it and it didn’t quite work out.

“But when he pushed The New One to within a head at Aintree in the Grade 1 two and a half mile hurdle, it was a no-brainer that that’s what we’d stick to.

“(The World Hurdle) is a big challenge. We’re relishing it and he’s got such a good record at Cheltenham (four wins and three seconds from nine runs) that we couldn’t sit at home and watch everyone else get on with it.

“We’ll find out on the day whether he stays three miles or not. He doesn’t owe anyone anything and if he stays he’ll hopefully run a huge race.”

In a sense, there is no pressure because of what the horse has already achieved. They cannot really know if he will stay or not. The gut feeling is that with his determined style of racing, he will fight all the way to the line.

“He runs with his heart on his sleeve. He always gives his all. That’s why we wanted to go there fresh because if he does stay, it will be because of his heart, guts and determination.

“He never knows when to give in. He always runs a huge race. He seems to peak in March and traditionally runs a huge race at the Festival.”

A doubt has emerged during the week about the continuation of Noel Fehily’s partnership with Rock On Ruby, due to a retainer he has with Zarkandar’s owners, Chris Giles and Potensis Bloodstock. Both Fehily and Fry are keeping their cards close to their chest.

The Cork-born jockey first rode Rock On Ruby to victory in a listed bumper at Cheltenham in November 2010. His second time on board was in the Champion Hurdle 16 months later and the partnership has remained intact on 13 subsequent occasions.

“Noel is another huge part of the team,” said Fry, prior to the news breaking about the pilot’s potential unavailability. “He has brought owners to the yard (including ironically, Giles and Potensis, who own Bitofapuzzle and Activial) and that’s been a huge part of the success we’ve had today.

“Particularly with ’Ruby though. They’ve struck up a fantastic relationship. He knows him like the back of his hand and he says he feels like he’s known him for a long time.”


You sense the real emotional attachment. As he says himself, the fact that he and Ciara named their now three-month-old daughter Ruby gives it away.

“We’re extremely lucky to have a horse of his calibre early on. He’s special. If we could have one winner and it was ’Ruby in the World Hurdle it would make our season and be the highlight of our career to date.”

The 28-year-old admits that having a little person around now is “life-changing” but in a very positive manner. Ciara is not as hands-on as she used to be around the yard, where she started as head girl and rode work regularly, but Fry says the he never makes a decision without discussing the matter with her first, whether it’s race-planning or how much work to give horses and so on.

“But as the team grows, people come in and help to run the show. That’s where Paul was very good in delegating and giving other people the chance to shine in the team, so he can stand back and look at the bigger picture, and hopefully keep building the team.”

Nicholls always speaks about the team, as does Willie Mullins. Day-to-day running of big operations cannot be done by one man. The trainer is a manager as much as anything and that is what Fry is attempting to build. His conversation is peppered with “we” rather than “I”.

He and his fiancée will marry in June. He first encountered the Askeaton girl around the time he was handed the reins at Seaborough, when a CV landed in Ditcheat.

“Obviously I said I’d better check out the pedigree first. She was applying to be a head lad at Ditcheat and they didn’t have the position available… we needed someone to fill that position.


“Initially, I think if you ask her, she drove out and said ‘That’s the last time I’ll ever set foot in that place’. Obviously first impressions and all! But three weeks later she rang and said ‘Yeah, I’ll be over in August’ so something obviously stuck.”

Ciara’s sister Áine has followed her over recently, having given a good account of herself in recent years as an amateur jockey attached to the late Dessie Hughes’ yard.

With Ciara more preoccupied at home and opportunities drying up a little in Ireland, Fry was delighted to welcome his future sister-in-law.

“She’s a very good amateur lady rider so hopefully she should get a chance at point-to-points and on the track. It will be nice to support the family,” he jokes.

There is no doubt that being able to prepare Rock On Ruby to a Champion Hurdle victory gave him the impetus to go out on his own.

“We were part of Team Ditcheat and it was a fantastic day. Once the season came to a close, we sat down over the summer. Ciara and I had a good chat, talking about where we want to go and obviously with Richard Barber, my landlord’s support, we were keen, on the back of the success, to try and make a go of it in our own right. Obviously having ’Ruby in the yard made a big difference.

“So I suppose it was that win that triggered the thought process that we put into plan later in that year in October, when we sent out our first winner, which was Highland Retreat, who continues to be another flag-bearer for the yard, still winning races and good races at that.”

You wonder though if it grates a little bit that his name is not connected in any official way with the championship success.

“That’s not how I see it at all. I was part of the team and if it wasn’t for having the opportunity to be part of Paul’s team I wouldn’t be here today.

“It’s all about stepping stones and that was a fantastic opportunity to be part of, to be in Ditcheat for four years and then for two years running the satellite yard at Seaborough, culminating in ’Ruby’s success in 2012.

“I was 19 when I went to work for him to start with. I got the chance to be part of his team and learn from him, so I wouldn’t be here now only for that.

“Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice to go and put our own name on the Roll of Honour, but we will treasure that day forever.”

Those six years were an incredible period for the Nicholls yard - for jump racing as a whole indeed, as the Dorset maestro boasted almost an embarrassment of riches.

“I remember my first season I was just in awe of everything that was happening. Kauto Star was winning everything he could possibly win from two miles to three. And you had Denman emerging. Then you’d Twist Magic, Master Minded, Big Buck’s, all just kept rolling off, one after the other. Neptune Collonges as well.

“It was staggering to win three Gold Cups on the bounce, have the first three one year. It was incredible. The more you look back on it the more you realise it’s something you’ll probably never be part of again. It was once-in-a-lifetime.”

And Ruby Walsh was the inevitable Irish contribution.

“He’s a top-class jockey. His record is as good anyone, maybe not numerically with A.P. McCoy, but particularly on the big days, the big meetings and the likes of the Cheltenham Festival. I talked about Noel being a key ingredient to our success and Ruby was fundamental in the success of Team Ditcheat.”

Now it’s all about Team Seaborough. Prior to racing on Thursday, Fry boasted a 32% strike-rate over hurdles and 29% in chases. He had blitzed his previous best for prize money won already, on the £425,000 mark, while he was just three winners off setting a new best numerically.

It is notable that last year’s 32 included 12 bumper winners. This season, he has only had two bumper victories but those young horses have made a largely smooth transition to hurdling.

At present, he has around 60 horses in, but the age profile is very young. Some are stores, some still have to be broken.

The strategy here is clearly long-term, building a strong foundation for the future and consistently having new young guns to take on the standard.

He chuckles when reminded that Willie Mullins was talking about sending 50 horses to the Festival.

“I think we’ve got 23 entries at Cheltenham. That’s just a staggering number from Willie but it’s just a hugely successful operation with fantastic horses.

“I’ve been very lucky to start off with Rock On Ruby in our yard. He’s been a real flag-bearer for us and this year we’ve had some exciting novice hurdlers that maybe one day might be able to fly the flag once ’Ruby’s racing days are over.”

He hopes to have around nine or 10 at the Festival. Activial will run in either the County or the Coral Cup, depending on ground conditions, but a stamina test is required so unless it turns up soft, it will be the latter.

Thomas Brown will probably take his chance in the Albert Bartlett. And he likes the J.P. McManus-owned Jollyallan a lot.

“Jollyallan has been progressing all season. He lost his unbeaten tag over hurdles last time in very testing ground at Sandown to Garde La Victoire. But it was good experience to get into battle with a seasoned campaigner and we’re looking forward to running him on better ground.”

He looks a chaser in the making but if he were to skate up in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, plans could change very quickly. And though he is built for fences, he isn’t short of gears.

“Yeah, he’s got a really high cruising speed and hopefully the better the race the better light we’ll see him in.”

One that probably won’t make the trip to Gloucestershire is Fletchers Flyer, a definite staying sort who might make a return to Punchestown, having beaten Sub Lieutenant in a bumper at the Irish NH Festival last April.

“He was second in a Grade 2 three-mile novice (last time). The winner (Definitly Red) is a very good horse and they both pulled a long way clear (22 lengths) of the third horse (Ballagh), who has strong form.

He won at Punchestown last year and he’ll definitely be one that will be chasing in the autumn.

“We haven’t been able to make up our minds yet with the owners whether we’ll go to Cheltenham, wait for Aintree or perhaps bring him back to Punchestown for the three-mile novice. He’s probably going to be running at distances in excess of three miles in the future, he’s a real stayer but hopefully a high-class one at that.”

He loved the Punchestown experience.

“It’s a fantastic festival. We were very lucky that Masterson sent us the horse. He’d won his Irish point-to-point with Adrian Maguire, and to have that man Derek O’Connor on his back as well... It was a fantastic day for us and capped a wonderful season.”

Finally, a quick game of fantasy racing. If there was one horse from anywhere else you would choose to have in the yard now, who would Fry select?

“I think Un De Sceaux looks very exciting. Not just as a novice this year but for the future. Unfortunately though, that will remain an unfulfilled dream.”

One of the few unticked boxes at the end of a lengthy career, one suspects.