Connections of Marie’s Rock are anticipating a blockbuster showdown with Bob Olinger when their star mare defends her Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle title at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day
Nicky Henderson’s Cheltenham Festival scorer has always shown a liking to the Prestbury Park undulations and won this contest in real style 12 months ago.
However, the Middleham Park Racing-owned Marie’s Rock will have to pass a stern test if she is to retain her crown, as a strong cast of four have assembled for the Group Two feature of Cheltenham’s opening meeting of 2024.
“It’s a bit of a different race this year and it’s a very good field,” said Middleham Park’s National Hunt racing manager Tom Palin.
“Olly (Murphy) has two in there and it’s a tried-and-tested route for Brewin’upastorm, while his other runner, Strong Leader, is an interesting edition.
“Bob Olinger though, he is a class horse over many years, and he is one I would be extremely respectful and worried about. He sets the standard really and on his going day this is very much is perfect race for him. But then again, Marie’s Rock is the defending queen, if you will.
“It will be a hell of a battle up that hill between ourselves and Bob Olinger. I’m extremely looking forward to watching that unfold – it should be a premier race for the first premier fixture and hopefully we are on the right side of it.”
Marie’s Rock was last seen failing to truly stay three miles for a second time on reappearance at Newbury.
She now returns to the distance her best performances have come at despite her team still harbouring staying ambitions for the future
“There is a bit of discussion about which trip is her optimum,” continued Palin.
“We know she is very good over two and a half at Cheltenham and as I’ve said before, this is very much to make sure she is absolute spot on fitness wise and built up as much fizz and freshness as we can before we go up to three miles with her again next time and that should answer the trip question once and for all.
“That isn’t to say this is some kind of three-mile prep race. She’s very much here with her best foot forward. It is Marie’s Rock playing at home and we would love to get the year off to a flying start the same way as we did last year.
“When you see four runners I was extremely worried about what could be a lack of pace. But I think Strong Leader will be the one that goes forward – they might switch it up and send Brewin’upastorm on – but we will just take a bit of a lead off whoever, get her switched off and into a rhythm.
“When she is relaxed and travelling she is electric over her hurdles. She is in her comfort zone then and a joy to watch.”
There will also be a change of jockey on Marie’s Rock with the sidelined Nico de Boinville replaced by Seven Barrows number two, the in-form James Bowen.
“Myself and Nicky both think James could be a good fit for her with the way he rides,” added Palin.
“He just drops his hands and lets them travel, so I think she could be a good horse for James to ride actually.
“I’m quite excited and it’s unfortunate what has happened to Nico, but it will be interesting to see James ride her and that could be a good fit and hopefully the pace will be strong enough for her to relax, get into a good rhythm, angle off that bend and away we go.”
Marie’s Rock’s Relkeel rival Bob Olinger needs no introduction, especially at Cheltenham, and Henry de Bromhead’s two-time Festival hero appeared back to near his imperious best when snatching the Lismullen Hurdle in November.
De Bromhead has swerved possible outings on home soil to stay at two and a half miles for this raiding mission and his regular pilot Rachael Blackmore foregoes the New Year’s Day meetings at Fairyhouse and Tramore to come over for steering duties.
She told Betfair: “I’m looking forward too to riding Bob Olinger. We were delighted to see him back at Navan the last day, he did really well, he battled on strongly to get the better of Zanahiyr and win the Lismullen Hurdle.
“He came out of the race really well, so hopefully he can build on that now. We know that he goes well at the track, and this extended two and a half miles is a good distance for him.
“It’s only a four-horse race, but it’s a competitive race, and we have to give 7lb to Marie’s Rock, who won the Mares’ Hurdle at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival and who won this race last year. But Bob is in great form, and I hope that he can go well.”
The select quartet is complete by Olly Murphy’s aforementioned duo Brewin’upastorm and Strong Leader, with the former a regular in this race and the latter a good second when upped in distance at Ascot last time.
Of Strong Leader, Murphy said: “He had a good run at Ascot, and I think the outer track at Cheltenham will suit him. He seems in good form, and he is still relatively unexposed. I’m hoping that he has a good each-way chance.
“He was still quite green at Ascot and appeared to appreciate the step up in trip, we thought we would do that after his run in the Welsh Champion Hurdle.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he wants further in time. I’d say we could probably look at going up in trip in the spring, but it would be nice to win a good pot over two and a half miles with him first.
“He was a good novice hurdler, and he was the first of the British-trained horses home in the Supreme last season.
“It was good to see him come out and run so well at Ascot. He is rated in the mid-140s now and hopefully with time he can improve on that mark.”
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