Nicky Richards hopes Ribble Valley can take advantage of a drop in class by returning to winning ways in the Unibet Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock.
The lightly-raced eight-year-old was last seen finishing third behind Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante in the Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November.
Having had a short break, Ribble Valley – previously triumphant on his return to action at Carlisle – will be prepared by the Greystoke handler for the two-mile Grade Two prize on January 23.
Richards said: “The plan at the moment is to run Ribble Valley in the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock.
“He is working away well and he seems fine, so hopefully we get a good run with the weather.
“He just needs to be a bit more streetwise, because when he has won he has gone round on the bridle.
“He didn’t disgrace himself at Newcastle, and hopefully there is a graded race over hurdles in him over the next couple of months.”
Although Ribble Valley failed to make his debut at the highest level a winning one, Richards believes the ground might have had a bearing on the result.
He said: “I think the ground was a little bit faster than we expected at Newcastle.
“He is a great big horse, and that ground probably didn’t suit him 100 per cent, especially down the straight.
“Epatante is the best jumps filly in the country, and on the day he wasn’t good enough. That said it was only his fifth run over hurdles, so he was in at the deep end.”
With a switch to chasing on the agenda for Ribble Valley next season, Richards is confident he will be seen to even greater effect when jumping a fence.
He added: “You were half-thinking he could be an Arkle horse this season, but he had only had four runs under his belt and he needs to be a bit more streetwise, so that is why we stuck over hurdles.
“I hope running him against good horses over hurdles this season will stand him in good stead over fences next season.
“I’m hoping he will take real high rank among the top boys when he goes novice chasing.”
Richards plans to continue taking small steps with Castle Rushen, who backed up his debut win over hurdles at Ayr in October with another emphatic success at the Scottish track the following month.
He said: “Castle Rushen is a grand horse. I’m not sure where he will run next, but it will probably be in February.
“We will have to put him in the top end at some stage to see where we are with him, but we will just go steady for now.”
With Castle Rushen appearing to appreciate the step up to an extended two miles and three furlongs last time out, Richards expects the Trevor Hemmings-owned gelding to be campaigned over similar trips in the future.
He said: “As you go up in class, you need more things in your favour – and while he would win over two again, I would imagine two and half would be his trip.
“He is a good traveller, and I know it wasn’t much of a race he won last time, but he has come out of it very well.”
An outing at the Randox Health Grand National Festival could be a long-term target this season for Castle Rushen.
“You know what colours he is in, and there is no doubt it would be lovely to be there for Trevor, and I’m sure he would be fine on a bit nicer ground,” added Richards.
“We’ve got a couple of runs to have before we firm up those plans, but it is nice to be thinking of a meeting like that.”