Henderson eager to maximise Festival firepower

Nicky Henderson appears increasingly keen to split Epatante and Marie’s Rock at the Cheltenham Festival after seeing his two top-class mares enjoy a racecourse gallop at Kempton on Tuesday morning.

The JP McManus-owned Epatante won the Champion Hurdle three years ago and has been placed behind Honeysuckle in each of the past two seasons.

However, she has been left trailing in the wake of stablemate Constitution Hill in both the Fighting Fifth and the Christmas Hurdle this season and rather than taking him on again in a fortnight’s time, she could be supplemented for another likely clash with Honeysuckle in the Mares’ Hurdle.

Marie’s Rock won the Mares’ Hurdle for the Seven Barrows team last year – but after seeing her work around Kempton’s all-weather circuit, Henderson hinted he is leaning towards allowing her to step up to three miles and take on the boys in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

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Nico de Boinville aboard Marie's Rock at Kempton
Nico de Boinville aboard Marie’s Rock at Kempton (Zac Goodwin/PA)

“The only thing that would be up for discussion now – and I think this (workout) gives Nico (de Boinville) and myself a bit more of a clue – is Marie’s Rock,” said the trainer.

“I’ll talk to Tom Palin (of owners Middleham Park Racing) and we’ll have a look at the Stayers’ Hurdle. Nico was very pleased with her and Aidan (Coleman) was very pleased with Epatante. She isn’t technically in both (the Champion Hurdle and the Mares’ Hurdle), but she could go for either.

“JP will decide what he wants to do, but if Epatante went to the Mares’ Hurdle, I could see a very good reason for Marie’s Rock moving up to three miles in the Stayers’ Hurdle as that’s what that snapshot was telling us there.

“That scenario would suit me but it isn’t about me, it’s about trying to do the best we can for each individual horse. It does realistically give all three of them a shot of winning a race. It just feels a little bit like common sense after watching what was happening today.

“I thought Epatante was great and she’s in very good form within herself. She’s quite big but she didn’t have a big blow.”

Jonbon and Aidan Coleman at Kempton
Jonbon and Aidan Coleman at Kempton (Zac Goodwin/PA)

Other Henderson inmates to strut their stuff at Kempton included leading Arkle Trophy hope Jonbon (Coleman) and possible Turners’ Novices’ Chase runner Balco Coastal (De Boinville).

Henderson added: “Jonbon was good and he did get warm today, but that’s why things like this do him good.

“Balco Coastal worked very well and I’m thinking about the Turners for him. I do think we can have him sharper than what he was at Sandown (when second in the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase).”

Meanwhile, Henderson confirmed that the long-absent Buzz is highly unlikely to be part of his Cheltenham Festival squad.

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The dual-purpose star won the Cesarewitch at Newmarket and Ascot Hurdle in quick succession in the autumn of 2021, but has been off the track since after fracturing his pelvis the day before an intended outing in the Long Walk Hurdle.

Buzz is very much back on the road to recovery, but Henderson feels a tilt at the Stayers’ Hurdle could be a bridge too far at this stage.

He said: “The only one who probably won’t go to Cheltenham is Buzz and I’ll probably concentrate on Aintree and possibly the Flat.

“He’s in very good form and is doing plenty of work. I was talking to the owners over the weekend and I don’t think that going three miles over hurdles on your first run for a year and a half is really a very sensible thing to be doing.”

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