Darlan pictured on his way to victory at Aintree last year
©Healy Racing Photos
Reigning Champion Hurdler Rock On Ruby tops a small but select field for this afternoon's 32 Red Hurdle at Doncaster.
Harry Fry's stable star has run just once this season, finishing third behind Zarkandar and Grandouet in the Stan James International Hurdle at Cheltenham, and faces another stern test despite only three rivals opposing him.
They include Darlan who looked on a steep upward curve when winning the William Hill Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on his reappearance and is among the leading fancies for hurdling's blue riband at Cheltenham in March.
JCB Triumph Hurdle Countrywide Flame was only fourth in the festive heat but was unsuited by the muddling early pace and had made a deep impression when winning the Stan James Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on his seasonal reappearance.
Clerk's Choice completes the field.
Fry is delighted to get a second run of the campaign into Rock On Ruby before he defends his crown next month.
"At the beginning of the week we were thinking Wincanton or not running at all but we definitely wanted a run, if we could, between now and March," the Dorset trainer told www.stanjames.com.
"The ground is drying there all the time so it's a great opportunity, timing-wise, to get a run in before March. It'll take him to the next level and put the extra edge on him that he needs to be in with a chance of retaining his crown.
"You'd have to say a trial race isn't really going to be run to our strengths, whereas a strong out-and-out gallop like in the Champion Hurdle will be.
"You can get a bit of a dawdle to begin with and it can turn into a sprint. Obviously we'll be trying make sure that doesn't happen but we could end up doing all the donkey work, which we know isn't our forte.
"With the speed Darlan showed in the Christmas Hurdle, you'd have to say the ball's in his court. Countrywide Flame's no mug either, especially on what he did at Newcastle in the soft.
"It's certainly going to be an informative race and we're looking forward to running. Schooling went well on Thursday with Noel (Fehily). He came down and sat on him and was very happy so we're full of confidence."
Countrywide Flame was only fourth behind Darlan at Kempton, but his trainer John Quinn believes his stable star will only be seen at his best when ground conditions improve.
"He's fit and well and schooled well the other day, so I'm looking forward to running him on Monday," said the North Yorkshire handler.
"The ground will be more suitable than what he's been running on so far this season and I do think once the ground really dries up in the spring he'll be even better.
"I think he'll run a good race, but it's not Cheltenham and that's what we're really looking forward to.
"We know he loves Cheltenham, he showed that in the Triumph Hurdle last year and as I was saying to someone the other day, if he hadn't kicked the last hurdle out of the ground he'd have won the Triumph Hurdle by six lengths.
"It is a good opportunity to get him out again on a bit of nice ground, so we'll see how we go."
Connections of the Nicky Henderson-trained Darlan are looking forward to getting a run into the six-year-old before he goes for Champion Hurdle glory in March.
He was due to line up in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday but switched to Town Moor after Sandown's hurdle races had to be abandoned due to a waterlogged track.
"It's a competitive little race. It's great they have put on the race and the ground might not be too bad there," said Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus.
"It's nice to see a good field, it's great to be able to get the run into him and we hope he runs well."