The pair were settling down to battle it out and the Nicky Henderson-trained Darlan was travelling particularly well under Tony McCoy. However, he met the last all wrong and crashed to the ground as Rock On Ruby (13-8) pushed on for a three-length victory over Countrywide Flame.
While McCoy escaped unscathed, Darlan sustained a fatal injury.
Henderson said: “It’s some game isn’t it? Why is it always the good ones?”
Darlan was among the top rank as a novice last term and had been expected to prove a major rival for Hurricane Fly in the Stan James Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham next month.
A faller two flights from home in last year’s Betfair Hurdle, he bounced back with a second in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle before going on to Grade Two glory at Aintree. The six-year-old graduated to Grade One success when running away with the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Darlan had jumped impressively up until the final flight, as Countrywide Flame set the pace, with Rock On Ruby sat on his heels. Rock On Ruby began his challenge at the top of the straight as Noel Fehily pushed to the front, with Darlan tracking his every move. Countrywide Flame was soon slightly outpaced and Darlan looked to be cantering in behind, only to step at the last when looking a likely winner.
Winning trainer Harry Fry said: “In terms of the race, we didn’t want a scenario like that and commiserations to all of Nicky’s team and AP (McCoy) and JP (McManus).
“As far as Ruby is concerned, we’ve come and he’s done the job. He’s had a good race and that will bring him on again for the day. He’s jumped well enough, not as sharp as he can be, but there’s improvement there.
“We can take him home and put the finishing touches on him. He’s a really tough horse. He joined Countrywide Flame turning into the straight and it’s a long way home, but he’ll keep galloping and keep finding all day for us. The whole season has been built around Cheltenham and hopefully we can go there full of confidence.”