Disappointed trainer vows to move on
KEIRAN Burke expressed his disappointment this week that Hunt Ball will not be returning to his Somerset yard.
News broke on Monday that the celebrated chaser is joining champion NH trainer Nicky Henderson following an unsuccessful five-month spell in America.
The eight-year-old – sold privately by owner Anthony Knott in May to the USA-based Atlantic Equine syndicate – has not reproduced his British form in four outings for the new connections over Stateside obstacles, the latest setback coming in what was billed as the Grade One Grand National (although it was a 2m4½f hurdle) at Fair Hill, Maryland, on Saturday.
The horse is due back on these shores in the next few days and will be in quarantine before moving to Henderson at Upper Lambourn.
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Burke, who tried to buy the gelding when Knott decided to sell, had hoped that Atlantic Equine might repatriate Hunt Ball with the man who masterminded the incredible rise to fame inside five months of the 2011-12 campaign.
But speaking from his Henley stable near Crewkerne Burke said: "Naturally I'm disappointed that Hunt Ball is not coming back to me but it is simply one of those things – that's racing.
"I did speak to Nick Carter, who heads Atlantic Equine, and he gave me an inkling that the horse would be going to Nicky Henderson, so I knew what was happening. Maybe he'll phone me for a bit of advice!
"I would imagine the horse will need a break now but for me, I've just got to move on and forget about it."
Dorset dairy-farmer Knott, who quit racing ownership after parting with his pride and joy, said: "Hunt Ball is nothing to do with me but I wish him and the connections all the best now that he's back here. And yes, of course I will go and watch him race."
There was talk of the horse going to Paul Nicholls as Carter is a former conditional at the Ditcheat yard. In his attempt to reclaim the trainer's crown Nicholls would have welcomed such a talent but now his principal rival will reap the benefit at a stable already bulging with chasing grandees like Sprinter Sacre, Bobs Worth, Long Run and Simonsig.
Knott has never disclosed how much he paid and sold the son of 1995 Irish Derby winner Winged Love for. He was a struggling hunterchaser and started at 100-1 when he first appeared in Knott's colours trained by Patrick Rodford and ridden by Burke in a Cheltenham novices' chase during April, 2011, shortly after changing hands for what the owner termed "the price of a second-hand car".
Fast forward 12 months and Hunt Ball – with Burke taking over the trainer's licence from Rodford, then at Ash near Martock – and the gelding had become the talk of the nation hurtling from a NH maiden on a mark of 69 in November, 2011, to 157 five months later following seven wins from nine outings, including a Cheltenham Festival handicap scorcher off 12st by eight lengths under Nick Scholfield.
After such a meteoric rise the horse did not have such a successful 2012-13 campaign yet was on 162 by the time he was shipped abroad following his lone victory of the season off top weight in a valuable Taunton handicap last April.
Now the repatriated horse starts a new chapter but Henderson has no definite plans and hinted, as Burke suggested, that he will give the Seven Barrows newcomer a break before battle commences.
By David Briers
HARRY Fry admitted on Monday: "We are licking our wounds after a fair old whopping." The trainer from Seaborough near Crewkerne was speaking following Rock On Ruby's comprehensive defeat on his seasonal reappearance by young pretender The New One in Sunday's listed hurdle at Kempton Park.
"It's back to the drawing board – all plans are on hold," added Fry after the 10-length beating for the Champion Hurdle runner-up who was eased to 20-1 for the March showdown. The New One – winner of the Neptune Investments' novices' hurdle at the 2013 Festival – is as short as 7-2.
The handler has ruled out a switch to chasing as connections feel Rock On Ruby does not have the scope for fences. Blinkers – used successfully at Cheltenham last March – were not employed this time but will be fitted in future though not for every race.