Middleham Park team taking cautious approach ahead of Rock return

Connections of Marie’s Rock are not getting carried away ahead of the Ladbrokes Committed To Safer Gambling Intermediate Hurdle at Newbury.

Comparisons have been drawn between her and stablemate Epatante, who won Saturday’s race – registered as the Gerry Feilden Hurdle – before going on to land the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and then the Champion Hurdle itself.

However, while Epatante had already been to a Cheltenham Festival and was running off a lowly mark of just 137, Marie’s Rock has had just two runs over hurdles because her previous campaign was cut short by injury, and she is running off 141 in what looks a much deeper race.

Having taken part in a gallop with stable companion Floressa recently, the two now clash for real.

Tom Palin, of Marie’s Rock’s owners Middleham Park Racing, said: “The silver lining of missing Cheltenham is that sometimes horses benefit greatly from extra time to strengthen up, but we were looking forward to March.

“The fact she’s coming here unbeaten in three, she remains hugely exciting and she’s summered very well. She looks amazing – Nicky Henderson and his team have been very good at sending pictures and videos to our members because we haven’t been able to go, of course.

“Her work has been excellent up to now, without pressing too many buttons, and her schooling has been great – she’s only jumped half as many flights in public as she should have, because half were dolled off when she won at Taunton.

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“I think we’ve got a stiffer task than Epatante – she was rated lower than we are and was a bit more the finished article. We’ve still got a few questions to answer, so this is a fact-finding mission as she’s only had two starts over hurdles, which is why my glass is probably only half full.

“This looks a strong race, certainly compared to the Taunton form which was against mares only. There are still questions to be answered, but hopefully she answers them on Saturday.

“With regards to where we go next, we have no plan because we still don’t really know what we have on our hands. She could answer the question with authority. Hopefully she kicks on and makes a bit of a splash.”

Along with Floressa and top weight Botox Has, who was impressive on his return at Cheltenham, Marie’s Rock could face her sternest test from Paul Nicholls’ Thyme White, an easy winner at Chepstow first time out.

“He won impressively on good ground at Chepstow seven weeks ago and was due to have a crack at the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham until the ground turned heavy,” Nicholls told Betfair.

“Conditions at Newbury will be much more to the liking of Thyme White in a race I always like to target, although it is hard for four-year-olds against older horses who do not get any weight allowances for their age.”

Nicholls holds a very strong hand in the Grade Two Ladbrokes John Francome Novices’ Chase, with Southfield Stone and the ex-Willie Mullins-trained Next Destination among a quality field of six.

Next Destination is making his chasing debut, having run with great credit on his first start for Nicholls when finishing behind Roksana over hurdles at Wetherby.

“I was over the moon with his performance at Wetherby a month ago on his first start for 920 days,” said Nicholls.

Next Destination (near side) was a very smart novice hurdle for Willie Mullins
Next Destination (near side) was a very smart novice hurdle for Willie Mullins (Niall Carson/PA)

“To stay on as he did into second place behind the smart mare Roksana was awesome after being off for all that time. I’d half been training him with the handbrake on, and he has definitely improved for the run.

“Next Destination is a Grade One-winning hurdler, looks every inch a chaser – and his schooling has been very good ahead of this debut over fences. He is an exciting prospect.”

Southfield Stone was no match for the exciting Protektorat last time out, but had earlier beaten subsequent Paddy Power Gold Cup winner Coole Cody.

“He has taken well to fences, is progressive – and this is his last chance to compete in novice company,” said Nicholls.

“On his first start this season at Cheltenham, he beat Coole Cody – who proceeded to win the Paddy Power Gold next time. Southfield Stone then couldn’t lay a glove on Protektorat back at Cheltenham, but still ran as well as can be expected as the winner looked a serious horse.

“He will enjoy the flat track and better ground.”

Marie’s Rock has Newbury option

Marie’s Rock could tread the same path as Champion Hurdle winning stablemate Epatante by making her return from injury in the Ladbrokes Gerry Feilden Intermediate Handicap Hurdle at Newbury.

Connections of the unbeaten Nicky Henderson-trained mare have earmarked the Listed contest on November 28 – which Epatante won 12 months ago on route to establishing herself as the best around – as a potential starting point.

After winning her first two starts over hurdles, including a Listed victory at Taunton,  the Middleham Park Racing-owned five year old was denied an outing in the at this year’s Festival after suffering a stress fracture.

Tom Palin, Middleham Park Racing’s National Hunt Manager, said: “Marie’s Rock should be ready to go in a couple of weeks and we might look at the Gerry Feilden with her which Epatante ran in last year.

“She was near on favourite for the Mares’ Novices Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival but she sustained a stress fracture and had to miss that. She has come back and is better than ever and Nicky is really excited about her.

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“Nicky has a bit of a hand in the Champion Hurdle and we will have to pick and choose where we go with her to avoid the big guns at Seven Barrows but we will try take the same route as Epatante for as long as we can, hopefully though to the Champion Hurdle.”

Though injury prevented Marie’s Rock from making an appearance at the Festival, Palin believes she would have gone close to giving the syndicate a first winner at the meeting since Junior landed the Kim Muir in 2011.

He added: “I wouldn’t have swapped our filly going into Cheltenham and think the world was supporting her going into that race before the injury. It would have been interesting to see how she would have got on.

“The winner was very impressive that day but Mr Henderson certainly thinks she would have gone very close or even won that race based on what he was seeing at home. She is very exciting.”

With a team of around 25 jumpers to go to war with this season Palin is particularly looking forward to seeing exciting juvenile Paros – who is a general 16-1 chance for the Triumph Hurdle – take to the track following his move from Gabriel Leenders to champion trainer Henderson.

He said: “Paros is really exciting Mr Henderson at home. He has raced once over in France and won very impressively and the form is working out well.

“It is a very exciting form line and it was the most expensive horse we have ever purchased so hopefully he will be good value.

“I’m not saying we will win the Triumph Hurdle but with a horse like him you assume you are working back from that date.”

Though plans remain fluid regarding a potential starting point Palin expects Paros to make his British debut this side of Christmas.

He added: “He has already got a penalty for winning at Dieppe which means we won’t see him in a regulation juvenile so it would probably in something quite nice.

“We were toying with the idea of going for the Wensleydale (at Wetherby) but that was two or three weeks too soon.

“There is a Grade Two juvenile at the November Meeting at Cheltenham but there are good races and sensible good races and we like to think we are quite sensible with our plans as it is a long season.”