Tag Archive for: Marie’s Rock

No trip concerns for Festival favourite Lossiemouth

Willie Mullins’ Lossiemouth will bid for more Cheltenham glory as she leads the stable’s string in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.

The grey was a highly impressive nine-and-a-half-length winner of the Unibet Hurdle on Trials day in January, defeating Love Envoi in a performance that brought the Champion Hurdle into question.

Connections ultimately decided to leave the mare with her own sex and she is completely dominant in the market as she steps up to two and a half miles for the first time.

She was a Festival winner last season when taking the Triumph Hurdle over two miles and a furlong, however, Mullins has few doubts about her ability to stay the extended trip.

“Lossiemouth was very good here on Trials day and most of my horses have been improving all season for their second run, so fingers crossed everything goes right for her,” he said.

Lossiemouth after winning the Unibet Hurdle
Lossiemouth after winning the Unibet Hurdle (Nigel French/PA)

“The race is two and a half miles, so we have to step up to that. I wouldn’t have any worries about it, Triumph Hurdle winners are normally stayers.”

The same stable also runs Ashroe Diamond, the Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle winner last time out and the mount of Patrick Mullins.

“We’ve also got an able deputy in Ashroe Diamond as well, so hopefully we’ll get a result,” the trainer said of the mare.

Patrick Mullins added: “I think she has a huge chance and I think her form is against proper open class geldings.

“Lossiemouth is stepping out of the juvenile division which is hard.

Ashroe Diamond during her bumper career
Ashroe Diamond during her bumper career (Nigel French/PA)

“It’s a great position to be in as there is no pressure and I do think at the trip, she has a great chance of causing an upset.”

Gala Marceau is another entrant from the yard and will be ridden by Danny Mullins after two third-placed runs so far this year, in the Yorkshire Rose and the Quevega Mares Hurdle.

Gala Marceau and Lossiemouth had a season-long tussle last year, with the former getting her head in front in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown but the latter coming out on top during their three other meetings.

“I think it (the Yorkshire Rose) was a good return, she settled much better than she had on her debut last year, so that probably shows she’s a bit more mature mentally,” the jockey said.

“Physically we’ve seen at home that she’s improved that way and I think the trip will be her big thing come Cheltenham. What she showed us in Auteuil last year (winning the Prix Alain du Breil) got me excited.

Gala Marceau on her way to winning the Spring Juvenile Hurdle
Gala Marceau on her way to winning the Spring Juvenile Hurdle (Donall Farmer/PA)

“The way Lossiemouth won in Cheltenham, it’s hard to see what can beat her, but we were close on her tail last year I think at two and a half miles, hopefully we might be able to frighten her in some way.”

Love Envoi was second in the contest last season and is a previous Festival winner having landed the Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle in 2022.

Her seasonal reappearance came in the Fighting Fifth, where she was second to Not So Sleepy, after which she was the runner up again behind Lossiemouth in the Unibet Hurdle.

She is proven on the ground, which is expected to be soft, and is stepping back up in trip for trainer Harry Fry and owners the Noel Fehily Racing Syndicate.

“She’s in fantastic form, we’re very happy with her, and we’re really looking forward to it,” said Fehily.

Love Envoi at Sandown previously
Love Envoi at Sandown previously (Steven Paston/PA)

“I think the ground will be perfect, I’d expect a big run from her tomorrow. She needed her first run and that was a big improvement the next time at Cheltenham over two miles and I’d expect her to improve again.

“Hopefully we can see something like her run last year at Cheltenham. The ground is ideal and I think she loves Cheltenham, it lights her up a little bit, we’re hopeful for a big run.”

Marie’s Rock was the winner of the race in 2022 and although she posted a below-par run last term, she has returned this season in good form for trainer Nicky Henderson.

Echoes In Rain is the fourth Mullins runner, with Henry de Bromhead fielding a team of three that comprises Telmesomethinggirl, Lantry Lady and Hispanic Moon.

The field is completed by Jamie Snowden’s You Wear It Well, winner of the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the meeting last year, and Henderson’s Theatre Glory.

Monday Musings: Trials and a Tribulation

In many ways, Trials Day at Cheltenham 2024 did exactly what it said on the tin, writes Tony Stafford. But for one trainer, a successful, remunerative trial early in the afternoon had become a gut-wrenching tribulation half an hour later. Jamie Snowden had hardly finished celebrating Ga Law’s sparkling return to his Paddy Power Gold Cup winning form from December 2022, when his other stable star Datsalrightgino was stricken down with a fatal fall at the ninth fence of the immediately following Cotswold Chase.

I suppose plenty of our handlers can be described as target trainers, but the ex-Army man Snowden fits that description to a tee. Both his best horses had last raced on another major day, Newbury’s Coral Gold Cup meeting early in December, each going to post for the top race with uncertainty about whether they would stay the three miles, two furlongs at the headlong gallop the former Hennessy Gold Cup routinely becomes.

Both seven-year-olds (the ideal age for that race over more than half a century) at the time, Ga Law had been up with the pace until early in the straight second time round but faded and was thus brought back to 2m4f, the distance of his Paddy Power win.

This race carried less prizemoney, but £56k was decent enough. Like the slightly richer at £70k Cotswold Chase which followed, Paddy Power was again the sponsor, the handicap offering the nod to the firm’s Cheltenham Countdown Podcast.

In the Coral Gold Cup, Datsalrightgino definitively proved his stamina with a late-running effort under Gavin Sheehan. No doubt everyone was happy enough as the partnership sat at the rear of the small field on Saturday, anticipating a similar run through to Newbury’s. Sadly, though, in the manner of sound jumpers that had previously never fallen, his lapse proved fatal.

Over the years, a win or place in the Hennessy often signalled future stardom. Most glaringly, the 1992 runner-up Jodami, carried only 10st2lb yet won the Cheltenham Gold Cup the following March. The future had seemed to open with endless possibilities for Snowden and Datsalrightgino, who won the race under 5lb more and quite easily too.

That feast or famine setback was typical of racing in general and jump racing in particular. It came at a time when Snowden had been in a great run, winning a novice hurdle at Catterick with a potential Boodles Handicap Hurdle contender on Thursday and the Grand Military Gold Cup at Sandown on Friday with his stable newcomer Farceur Du Large.

A race he won as a rider four times, the Grand Military had eluded him until now but this ex-Irish 10-year-old who had achieved a great deal for Noel Meade until losing his form, admittedly in major handicaps over the past year, had slipped down to a rating of 130, the upper limit for the military race.

So, while not a handicap, but almost (apart from females) a level weights affair, it has become a nice target for horses like Farceur Du Large, that can meet vastly inferior opposition on much more favourable terms – not that his 11/1 starting price reflected his history or the fact that Jamie would have been ultra-keen to win it.

There were Festival hints throughout the weekend, including the hitherto invisible juvenile champion hurdler of 2022-3, Lossiemouth. Willie Mullins finally took the wraps off her in the Grade 2 Unibet Hurdle and the Triumph Hurdle winner from last March and then slightly less overwhelmingly superior at Punchestown in April, metaphorically laughed at Love Envoi to win by just over nine lengths.

Speculation naturally followed as to whether she would be offered up alongside older stable-companion State Man as opposition to Constitution Hill. The reigning champ missed Saturday’s race just as he had the re-scheduled Fighting Fifth at Sandown last month, this time for a slight training issue rather than the fear of too-testing ground.

In that race, Love Envoi had been a slightly lesser distance behind Not So Sleepy, as Lossiemouth on Saturday, but really it could have been a fair bit more. Hughie Morrison’s old Timer Not So Sleepy has put together an exceptional hurdles record over the years, often spectacularly so.

Lossiemouth was quoted as a 10/1 shot in Champion Hurdle betting, behind only last year’s one-two, State Man being at around 9/2 and Constitution Hill, naturally odds-on. If Mullins decides to go the mares’ route, Lossiemouth is similarly odds on to join six-time winner of the race Quevega.  It’s hard to call it a substitute for the biggest prize. Admittedly, Honeysuckle stepped across to it last March to avoid Nicky Henderson’s emerging star rather than attempt to complete her personal hat-trick. I think she earned that little bit of latitude and understanding for her emotional farewell to the track.

In 2022, Marie’s Rock was a surprise 18/1 winner of the mares’ race for Nicky Henderson. Amazingly, she started joint-favourite at 9/4 with Honeysuckle for last year’s race when equally surprisingly she could manage only 7th of 9. There’s no sign to suggest the nine-year-old has any less talent than before as she showed in the feature race at Doncaster yesterday, the Warfield Mares Hurdle, Grade 2.

There, our old friend Coquelicot shared the pace for much of the way but, in the straight, class told and she had to be content with fourth place and just short of 2.5k for geegez.co.uk and Anthony Honeyball. It looked for a few strides that Marie’s Rock was about to be swamped for pace by You Wear It Well, winner of last year’s Mares’ Novice Hurdle at the Festival and attempting to bring a little joy to the Jamie Snowden camp.

Her stamina was unproven before the race, but now having got close to the Henderson mare, she will have more opportunities going forward. Dropping back to 2m4f at the Festival is a given for her and equally the winner, who showed just that little too much power for her on the demanding Doncaster run-in

The Gold Cup picture didn’t really look any clearer after Saturday. With Datsalrightgino not concerned in the finish, there was a Willie Mullins winner in Capodanno, but he is officially rated 21lb inferior to reigning champ Galopin Des Champs. Capodanno will possibly aim at the shorter Ryanair Chase for the Mullins stable, but there will be several ahead of him in the pecking order even for that race.

The latest episode in the on-going tussle between staying hurdlers Paisley Park, Dashel Drasher and Champ came in the Cleeve Hurdle. All three were in with a chance on the run-in at the end of the three miles and they finished in that order in second, fourth and fifth behind Noble Yeats, the 2022 Grand National winner.

Still only a nine-year-old, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t make a winning return to Aintree after his bold show under a massive weight last year and maybe stop off on the way in the Stayers Hurdle or even the Gold Cup as he did last year.

The excitement building that second-season trainer James Owen may have a potential Festival winner in his care will have cooled after Burdett Road was well beaten by market rival Sir Gino in the JCB Triumph Trial. Ten lengths was the margin about a horse that was pinched by Nicky Henderson from under the noses of the Mullins buying team (and other Irish connections, too) after it won a juvenile race in April last year at Auteuil. It’s easy to forget just how good Nicky is with juveniles and in the Triumph Hurdle, his seven wins in the race being a record.

 - TS

Marie’s Rock looking to book Festival ticket on Town Moor

Nicky Henderson’s Marie’s Rock is given another chance to advertise her staying talents in the rearranged SBK Warfield Mares’ Hurdle at Doncaster on Sunday.

The extended three-mile contest was originally scheduled for Ascot last Saturday before the cold snap forced a switch to Town Moor and Marie’s Rock’s owners, Middleham Park Racing, are thrilled their star mare gets the opportunity to run in a Grade Two event worth over £25,000 to the winner.

Her previous forays up to a staying trip have ended in defeat, but Middleham Park’s Tom Palin believes she has shown enough promise at the distance to be a major player in a race that also features Dan Skelton’s West Balboa, who was sent off favourite for the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle last month.

He said: “We’re very grateful for the fact that this race is going ahead. It looks a good opportunity for us to go back up to three miles.

Trainer Nicky Henderson and Marie’s Rock at Seven Barrows
Trainer Nicky Henderson and Marie’s Rock at Seven Barrows (David Davies/PA)

“I do concede three miles is probably not her optimum and most effective trip – her championship trip. But that’s not to say she is ineffective over three miles and her ratings for her previous tries suggest she is capable of putting in a performance in the mid-to-high 140s, which in theory should see her competitive in this race.

“I don’t think she doesn’t stay it, she showed at Aintree she can get the trip. Is she a Grade One Stayers’ Hurdle contender over three miles? No. And that is why we are targeting the Mares’ Hurdle again at Cheltenham and is the only Festival entry she has got.

“However, I do think she is worth another crack at three miles in this Grade and amongst this company.”

The Cheltenham Festival winner was last seen chasing home Bob Olinger when defending her Relkeel Hurdle crown at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, with connections content with the nine-year-old’s display against an on-song rival.

“I think we were as good as a Marie’s Rock aged nine could be last time against a resurgent Bob Olinger,” continued Palin.

“I wouldn’t have changed anything, almost nothing at all, about our Relkeel run – I think we did as well as we could and I would be supporting Bob Olinger wherever he runs next, that was a ridiculous performance from him.

“I thought we ran a really respectable race there and a repeat of that Relkeel performance should be enough to see her competitive here and to finish in the first five in a Mares’ Hurdle.

“You have to give West Balboa plenty of respect, she was backed into favouritism in the Long Walk. But we were backed into favouritism at Newbury, so it will be an interesting battle between them. We’re going to Doncaster full of hope we have found the right race for her and if everything goes to plan she should be competitive.”

Theatre Glory is one of three in the SBK Warfield Mares' Hurdle for Nicky Henderson
Theatre Glory is one of three in the SBK Warfield Mares’ Hurdle for Nicky Henderson (Tim Goode/PA)

Marie’s Rock is joined by a pair of Seven Barrows stablemates in Theatre Glory and Tweed Skirt, while Jamie Snowden’s Cheltenham Festival winner You Wear It Well tries three miles for the first time having finished well held in third in the Fighting Fifth last month.

Fergal O’Brien’s Dysart Enos will continue inching her way towards the Cheltenham Festival in the opening Download The At The Races App Novices’ Hurdle.

Amongst the favourites for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Prestbury Park in March, the six-year-old has done nothing but impress when maintaining her unbeaten record over hurdles this season.

She has now been found a fantastic opening to bank some more experience ahead of National Hunt’s showpiece meeting in just over six weeks’ time.

Dysart Enos has impressed over hurdles this term
Dysart Enos has impressed over hurdles this term (Simon Marper/PA)

O’Brien said: “Neil (Jukes, race planner) can take all the credit for plotting this one and hopefully it’s a good opportunity for her to go and run without many penalties and she can turn up there and run her race and then look forward to the next one.

“I’ve been very happy with her since her last run, but more importantly Tom Broughton who rides her all the time says she is ready to go, so we will head to Doncaster on Sunday.

“I’ll probably be watching it from behind my fingers or behind a sofa somewhere and there won’t be a lot of pleasure in watching it, but we just need to get on and run her and I’m never afraid to get beat.

“You never know what is going to turn up on the day and we’ve just got to go and take our chance and hopefully do what we need to do.”

Marie’s Rock set to target second Mares’ Hurdle triumph

Connections of Marie’s Rock appear to have abandoned ambitions of conquering the staying hurdling division in favour of another crack at the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Her previous attempts at three miles have proved fruitless, but the team behind Nicky Henderson’s nine-year-old have always felt they needed further evidence over a staying distance before completely giving up on the Stayers’ Hurdle dream.

A run in the Cleeve Hurdle later in the month was mooted as the potential acid test of her staying credentials, but following a seven-length defeat by a resurgent Bob Olinger when trying to defend her Relkeel Hurdle crown, attentions will be turned to another run over two and a half miles at the Festival in March and an attempt to win the mares’ only Grade One for a second time.

Marie's Rock (right) could not match Bob Olinger at Cheltenham
Marie’s Rock (right) could not match Bob Olinger at Cheltenham (Nigel French/PA)

“I think she ran a Marie’s Rock race. They went a good enough gallop. James (Bowen) was very happy with how she settled and she jumped very well,” said Middleham Park’s National Hunt racing manager Tom Palin.

“I think we were just beaten by a resurgent Bob Olinger and you can do nothing but tip your cap and go ‘well played’.

“We were discussing about going three miles again, but I would say at this point we are going to go for the Mares’ Hurdle. That would be the hot take, if you were.

“I think this tells us we should be looking back to what we know and to go and try to win the Mares’ Hurdle again. Hopefully, we get a truer-run race in it this year.”

Marie’s Rock won at the Cheltenham Festival in 2022
Marie’s Rock won at the Cheltenham Festival in 2022 (David Davies/PA)

Although surrendering her Relkeel crown to Henry de Bromhead’s on-song raider, the Middleham Park Racing team were pleased with Marie’s Rock’s efforts at Prestbury Park and will now return their star mare to her own sex for her Festival tune-up, which is likely to be Warwick’s Listed Hurdle on February 10.

“That performance she put in was the real Marie’s Rock and I think that performance is good enough to be competitive in a Mares’ Hurdle at the Festival,” continued Palin.

“I don’t think we will go to Ascot (for the Warfield) or the Cleeve Hurdle.

“I think we will go to Warwick for the Listed race she won before the Mares’ Hurdle at the Festival. That is in mid-February. That is about six weeks away now, then it is a month to the Festival and that appears the route we will go.”

Marie’s ready to rock against Bob Olinger

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 (right) jumping a hurdle on route to winning this race 12 months ago
Marie’s Rock (right) jumping a hurdle on route to winning this race 12 months ago (David Davies/PA)

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.

James Bowen will ride Marie's Rock on New Year's Day
James Bowen will ride Marie’s Rock on New Year’s Day (Nigel French/PA)

“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.

Bob Olinger has enjoyed plenty of success at Prestbury Park
Bob Olinger has enjoyed plenty of success at Prestbury Park (Tim Goode/PA)

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.”

Brewin’upastorm knows his way around Cheltenham
Brewin’upastorm knows his way around Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

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.

Strong Leader (left) enjoyed stepping up in trip at Ascot
Strong Leader (left) enjoyed stepping up in trip at Ascot (Nigel French/PA)

“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.”

Relkeel target for Marie’s Rock on New Year’s Day

Marie’s Rock is being readied for a defence of her Relkeel Hurdle crown on New Year’s Day after connections decided against a tilt at Saturday’s Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.

Nicky Henderson’s dual Grade One winner proved much too strong for Dashel Drasher in the Relkeel at Cheltenham last season, prompting the Middleham Park Racing team to seriously consider stepping up to three miles in the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Festival in March.

Ultimately, though, she was kept against her own sex in a bid to secure back-to-back victories in the Mares’ Hurdle, but failed to fire as retiring superstar Honeysuckle stole the show.

Nicky Henderson with Marie's Rock
Nicky Henderson with Marie’s Rock (David Davies/PA)

Having subsequently run with credit over the extended distance at Aintree in the spring, optimism was high when she tackled three miles again in last month’s Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, but Marie’s Rock could finish only fourth behind her old rival Dashel Drasher, prompting a change of direction.

“She was a bit too free and fresh at Newbury to get an accurate reading on whether she stayed the three miles and we’ve decided to go back to what we know for her next start,” said Middleham Park’s National Hunt racing manager Tom Palin.

“I was probably a bit too bullish for my own good before Newbury, but horses to have a tendency to make you look silly at times! She was certainly the liveliest I’ve seen her in recent memory in the parade ring beforehand and Nico (de Boinville) felt the damage was done before the tapes even went up.

“We’ll go back to two and a half on soft ground at Cheltenham, which we know she loves, burn some more freshness off her and get her really fit before going back up to three miles, either in the Cleeve Hurdle back at Cheltenham on Trials day or there’s a Grade Two mares’ race at Ascot on January 20.”

Bob Olinger could face Marie's Rock at Cheltenham
Bob Olinger could face Marie’s Rock at Cheltenham (Tim Goode/PA)

Palin is fully aware the Relkeel Hurdle will be no penalty kick for Marie’s Rock, with Henry de Bromhead’s resurgent Irish star Bob Olinger among her potential rivals.

He added: “It’s not a bad race the Relkeel, by the way – it’s not a case of we’re dodging the Long Walk and ‘only’ going for the Relkeel. It was a very competitive race last year and it looks like it’s going to be at least as strong this time around.

“Unless it’s very obvious in the Relkeel that she doesn’t want any further, we’re keen to give her another go over three miles afterwards as that will tell us whether we aim for the Mares’ Hurdle again at the Festival or have another look at the Stayers’ Hurdle.

“She is a mare at the end of the day, so let’s see if we can get some more wins into her, starting off in a race where we know everything should be right for her.”

Jury still out regarding Marie’s Rock stamina

Freshness has been cited as the reason for the below-par display from Marie’s Rock at Newbury, with owners Middleham Park Racing no closer to knowing if their star mare truly stays three miles.

The Nicky Henderson-trained eight-year-old was a Cheltenham Festival heroine for her syndicate members in 2022 before following up at the Punchestown Festival the following month.

She added to her haul of victories when successfully reappearing in the Relkeel Hurdle on New Year’s Day but failed to defend her Mares’ Hurdle crown when seventh behind Honeysuckle.

Having decided against a move up to three miles at the Festival, connections finally made the step up in distance at Aintree a month later, where she finished second to a thriving Sire Du Berlais.

Given another chance to prove herself over a staying trip, Marie’s Rock was sent off the 6-5 favourite to get her new campaign off to a winning start in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle.

However, over-exuberance both pre-race and in the early exchanges put paid to her chances and left connections willing to put a line through her disappointing fourth-placed finish under Nico de Boinville.

Marie’s Rock in action at Punchestown
Marie’s Rock in action at Punchestown (Niall Carson/PA)

“I suspected we knew our fate when she was leaving the parade ring really, and she was as wound up as I’ve seen her in recent memory,” explained Tom Palin, racing manager for Middleham Park’s National Hunt string.

“She is Marie’s Rock, she does get sweaty and she does get buzzy, but she was very, very on it and Nico said she was on it at the start, just always on her nerves.

“She came there looking like she was going to be deadly and nothing was found and that was because she spent her energy at the start really, the damage was done before the tapes went up.

“There’s a fine line with horses like her and she’s so brilliant and so quick, but you just need to harness it and I think she was just too fresh and too free to do herself any form of justice.”

The defeat has left the Middleham Park team scratching their heads regarding Marie’s Rock’s next move, still lacking clarity over their eight-time winner’s staying potential.

Although eased in the Long Walk Hurdle market, connections are refusing to completely give up on three-mile ambitions, despite a crack at back-to-back Relkeel Hurdle victories followed by the Mares’ Hurdle back down in trip creeping onto the radar.

“We’ll regroup and go again and see whether we go again over three miles next time or drop back to two-and-a-half for the Relkeel,” added Palin.

“She’s the defending champion in that and is very good over two-and-a-half-miles at Cheltenham. That could be just the ticket, or we could stick to three miles in the Long Walk.

“We’ll have a bit of a discussion as a syndicate and with the trainer and see just where she is in the next 10 days or so.

“She was too free to accurately judge if she is going to be a three miler or not, but what I would say is that at this stage, the Mares'(Hurdle) is a bit more open to consideration than it was going into Friday.

“My comments (previously) have been it’s very much just the three-mile route, but when the facts change, your opinions are allowed to change as well and I’m not as all-in – nor is Nicky or the team – on the three-mile division being her sole campaign this year. We’ll know more as the season goes on.”

Trainer Nicky Henderson and Marie’s Rock at Seven Barrows
Trainer Nicky Henderson and Marie’s Rock at Seven Barrows (David Davies/PA)

If abandoning the Long Walk in favour of the Relkeel, one possible route available to the Marie’s Rock team is a temporary drop in distance that allows the mare the chance to defend her crown, before a third attempt at three miles over the Stayers’ Hurdle track and trip in the Cleeve Hurdle on Festival Trials Day.

“You could go Relkeel and then onto the Cleeve at the end of the month and go back up to three miles that way,” continued Palin.

“Then she will be hard fit because she’s had two runs, burnt off any freshness and there would be no excuses.

“You would have a pretty good sighter and handle on whether she is right to line up in a Grade One staying race from there on in.”

Middleham Park big guns to clash in Long Distance Hurdle

Middleham Park hurdlers Red Risk and Marie’s Rock are likely to cross paths in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury next month.

Both horses run in the silks of the ownership group, and Marie’s Rock has won at the highest level for connections, taking both the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and the Mares Champion Hurdle at Punchestown last year.

The Nicky Henderson-trained mare was second to Sire Du Berlais in the Liverpool Hurdle on her final start last season and will reappear for the new campaign over the staying trip.

There she will encounter Paul Nicholls’ Red Risk, an eight-year-old who has been moving out of handicap company in recent starts and made a promising start to the season when second in the Grade Two bet365 Hurdle at Wetherby’s Charlie Hall meeting.

Tom Palin of Middleham Park said of the two horses: “I think they’re going to do battle, they’ll be taking each other on at Newbury in the three-mile Grade Two there (December 1).

Marie’s Rock ridden by jockey Nico de Boinville
Marie’s Rock ridden by jockey Nico de Boinville (Niall Carson/PA)

“That’s been Marie’s Rock’s target for a while, that was the logical starting point for her.

“Red Risk ran a cracker at Wetherby, I thought we were going to go past the other horse but he really toughed it out as well. We were delighted with the run.

“He does go very well fresh, we’ll run at Newbury but the one question we have is whether it’s a bit too soon after Wetherby.

“Then we’d just look at giving him a bit of a freshen up going into something ahead of the spring, maybe a Cleeve Hurdle or something akin to that.

“They’ll probably end up taking each other on at Newbury in that Grade Two and it will be fascinating to see who comes out on top.”

Red Risk and jockey Harry Cobden
Red Risk and jockey Harry Cobden (John Walton/PA)

Marie’s Rock will proceed from Wetherby in the direction of the top staying contests, with the big festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree pencilled in for the spring.

“She’s obviously got that useful weight allowance and I think she has a pull as it is on official ratings but that performance (by Red Risk) the other day was a very, very good performance,” Palin said.

“We’ve just got Red Risk figured out and Marie’s Rock is in great form. Her campaign kind of plans itself; Newbury, Ascot, Cheltenham for the Cleeve, Cheltenham for the Stayers’ and Aintree again.”

Marie’s ready to Rock in Liverpool Hurdle

Marie’s Rock will finally get a crack at three miles when she goes to post for the Jrl Group Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree.

Connections had mooted a move up in trip for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival before electing to defend her Mares’ Hurdle crown over an intermediate distance.

However, having seen her four-race winning run come to an end at Prestbury Park, the Nicky Henderson-trained eight-year-old will now test her mettle in the staying division, with the flat three miles of the Merseyside track identified as the perfect examination of her credentials.

“It was well documented it was a 50-50 last minute decision whether we stepped up or didn’t at Cheltenham,” said Tom Palin of owners Middleham Park Racing.

“I still think we made the right decision as it was very testing there at Cheltenham and I think this looks a slightly more open rendition of a three-mile Grade One.

“Her trainer has been quite vocal all year that he would like to see her over three miles. The jockey (Nico de Boinville) is very confident she will see out the trip and after her performance in the Relkeel, I want to jump on the bandwagon as well. It’s been something we’ve been wanting to try for the last couple of months and we’re finally going to do it.

“I think Aintree seems the sensible place to have a look at three miles. She’s never been round there but has a lot of form at flat tracks, so there is no reason to think she wouldn’t act round there. As much as Cheltenham is her spiritual home, this should be fine for her and she’s in good form.”

Marie’s Rock was sent off the 9-4 joint favourite when beaten 15 lengths at the Cheltenham Festival, but with the mare showing no ill effects in the aftermath, Palin is keen to put a line through that outing as she looks to regain the winning thread in the her first visit to the north west.

“We’re happy to put a line through Cheltenham,” he continued. “The Mares’ was an unsatisfactory race in the way it was run.

“It was run at a very sedate pace and the two on the front just got soft leads and were able to wind it up at the correct time. That left horses like ourselves and Epatante on the back foot and unable to land a blow.

“Nothing came to light with our mare afterwards and I would hope to see a truer run race here, which means she will be able to settle and in theory we should see her finishing burst quickening off an already good tempo.

Trainer Nicky Henderson and Marie’s Rock during a visit to Nicky Henderson’s stables at Seven Barrows in Lambourn
Trainer Nicky Henderson and Marie’s Rock during a visit to Nicky Henderson’s stables at Seven Barrows in Lambourn (David Davies/PA)

“She will either stay or she will not. We will not be riding her to get the trip, we’ll just settle her in mid-div and whenever Nico feels the time is right to unleash her up that straight, we will find out if she stays or she doesn’t.”

Stayers’ Hurdle champion Sire Du Berlais accounted for Gavin Cromwell’s Flooring Porter in this 12 months ago and Gordon Elliott will be hoping lighting strikes twice for his stable stalwart following his heroic Prestbury Park triumph last month.

“Sire Du Berlais seems in great order since Cheltenham,” said the Cullentra House handler.

“He has a habit of running one massive race a year and that’s what he did at Cheltenham, but hopefully he can find another big performance here.”

As well as the defending champion, owner JP McManus can also count on the services of Champ who is another in the race for Seven Barrows handler Henderson.

Dashel Drasher further represents the Stayers’ Hurdle form, with Jeremy Scott’s admirably consistent 10-year-old attempting to go one better than his Cheltenham second, while Home By The Lee struck twice in Ireland before finishing fifth – beaten only three and three-quarter lengths – at the Festival.

“He seems in good shape and we’re looking forward to going to Aintree with him – we think the track will suit him,” said trainer Joseph O’Brien.

Home By The Lee ridden by jockey JJ Slevin (left) jumps the last hurdle on their way to winning the Jack de Bromhead Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown
Home By The Lee ridden by jockey JJ Slevin (left) jumps the last hurdle on their way to winning the Jack de Bromhead Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown (Niall Carson/PA)

“He did well to finish as close as he did in Cheltenham after the mistake he made.

“We’re hoping for a good run from him in what looks a good race.”

Oliver McKiernan’s Meet And Greet was third to Home By The Lee at Leopardstown over Christmas and was last seen finishing runner-up to Blazing Khal in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan.

He returns to three miles which could be a positive, while attempting the trip for the first time is Olly Murphy’s Brewin’upastorm – who proved better than ever when continuing his love affair with Fontwell’s National Spirit Hurdle in February.

Dan Skelton’s Proschema was well held in that contest and has not been seen at his best since scoring at Wetherby earlier in the season, with Paul Nicholls’ Monmiral reverting to the smaller obstacles having been novice chasing throughout the current campaign.

Marie’s Rock team sticking to three-mile plan at Aintree

Marie’s Rock will pursue her planned step up to three miles at Aintree after a disappointing Cheltenham Festival performance.

The Nicky Henderson-trained eight-year-old was vying to defend her title in a red-hot renewal of the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle, but did not land a blow when coming home in seventh place.

Despite the line-up being especially competitive, connections felt the run was far from a true reflection of Marie’s Rock’s abilities and she was ultimately unsuited by how the contest unfolded tactically.

Both the mares’ race and the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Festival were under consideration, with her team eventually deciding on the former and a step up to three miles pencilled in for the Grand National meeting at Aintree instead.

Marie’s Rock winning at the Cheltenham Festival last year
Marie’s Rock winning at the Cheltenham Festival last year (Nigel French/PA)

That remains the plan and the JRL Liverpool Hurdle over three miles and half a furlong is next on the agenda.

“She’s come out of Cheltenham fine, it was obviously a bit of an unsatisfactory race,” said Tom Palin of owners Middleham Park Racing.

“They went a bit of a crawl and it was the first two home that had the correct set of fractions, they were well positioned throughout and then it became a bit of a sprint and that was always going to suit a Champion Hurdle winner.

“That’s racing, it was run in a manner which didn’t show her to the best of her ability but there’s nothing wrong with her, nothing’s come to light.

“She’s not had a hard time of things, Nico (de Boinville) looked after her once it became clear they were scattering away from her. We were weighing up whether to go up in trip at Cheltenham, but I still think we made the right decision as the ground was pretty testing for the Stayers’ Hurdle.

Trainer Nicky Henderson and Marie’s Rock
Trainer Nicky Henderson and Marie’s Rock (David Davies/PA)

“She will go up to three miles for the Grade One on Grand National day, the Liverpool Hurdle. It looks an exciting race, I think Champ’s going there and they’re talking about it with Blazing Khal.

“The trainer and jockey firmly believe that’s where we should be pitching her now, hopefully it’s good ground. It’s a nice, flat track and they should go a good gallop so she can settle for the first mile and a half.”

Though disappointed with his runner’s performance, Palin was still able to enjoy the poignant success of the now-retired Honeysuckle, who bowed out on a high in an emotional victory for Henry de Bromhead.

Honeysuckle's victory was a popular result
Honeysuckle’s victory was a popular result (Tim Goode/PA)

He said: “It was very deflating and disheartening on the day, but the story in the end was fantastic. It was a brilliant story for racing and that was about the best hour of jumps racing you should wish for.

“It was meant to be Love Envoi, Epatante, Marie’s Rock and Honeysuckle jumping the last together and may the best filly win. It was a bit unsatisfactory for us, but the broader outcome was great.

“The fact that we never landed a blow and we were never involved tells us it was a draw a line through it stuff, hopefully she’ll bounce back at Aintree and that will make next year’s plan very simple.”

Honeysuckle seeking perfect Festival swansong

There will surely be no more popular winner at this year’s Cheltenham Festival than Honeysuckle if she can go out in a blaze of glory in Tuesday’s Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.

It is three years since Henry de Bromhead’s superstar mare saw off Benie Des Dieux in a barnstorming renewal of the Grade One contest and she has since returned to the Cotswolds to claim back-to-back victories in the Champion Hurdle.

But after an unbeaten run of 16 races, Honeysuckle suffered her first defeat when only third in her bid for a fourth Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse in December – and having since proved no match for State Man in the Irish Champion Hurdle, she goes back against her own sex for what will be her swansong.

Honeysuckle at Cheltenham on Monday morning
Honeysuckle at Cheltenham on Monday morning (David Davies/PA)

Peter Molony, racing manager for owner Kenny Alexander, said: “I wish it wasn’t raining quite so much, but we’re looking forward to it.

“She seems very happy to be back at Cheltenham – she loves the place.

“Henry always has her at her peak at Cheltenham – he’s a master at that – and I have every confidence that he’ll have done the same this year.”

While Honeysuckle clearly holds outstanding claims her task is far from straightforward, with old foe Epatante – winner of the 2020 Champion Hurdle and placed behind Honeysuckle in each of the past two years – and her stablemate and defending champion Marie’s Rock chief among her rivals.

“It’s a phenomenal race. Ruby Walsh said last week he could imagine five or six mares coming round the bend together and so could I,” Molony added.

“It’s as deep a race as there is all week, but hopefully Honeysuckle will be there coming round the home bend and from there may the best mare win and she comes home safely, that’s the main thing.

“It would be a fairytale for her to win at Cheltenham again. She owes us nothing, but we are greedy!”

The two biggest threats to Honeysuckle appear to hail from Nicky Henderson’s yard, with last year’s winner Marie’s Rock joined by top-class stablemate Epatante.

There was a lot of talk that Marie’s Rock could this year step up in trip to take on the boys in the Stayers’ Hurdle later in the week, but connections ultimately decided to let her defend her crown.

Marie’s Rock and Nico de Boinville after winning last year's Mares' Hurdle
Marie’s Rock and Nico de Boinville after winning last year’s Mares’ Hurdle (David Davies/PA)

Tom Palin, racing manager to owners Middleham Park Racing, said: “You might not get a fair reading of if she truly does see out three miles in soft ground, so that’s why we’ve gone for what some might regard as the safe option, or what some people might call the sensible option.

“She’s a defending champion and there’s been a lot made about whether champions should defend their crowns and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

“We’re going back there and I think it looks the race of the meeting.”

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

The JP McManus-owned mare was blown away by esteemed stablemate Constitution Hill on a couple of occasions earlier this term, but she enjoyed a confidence-boosting success at Doncaster at the end of January and has been supplemented to renew rivalry with Honeysuckle on the opening day of the Festival.

Henderson told Unibet: “Apart from bumping into a certain Constitution Hill twice this season, she has been pretty much exemplary in everything else and we have always really wanted to run here, rather than the Champion Hurdle, because she has an excellent chance against her own sex and I must admit she has been in fantastic form at home.

“We know she gets the trip well and handles soft, so has plenty in her favour and on ratings there is absolutely nothing between her and Marie’s Rock.”

The Seven Barrows handler has a third string to his bow and a second supplemented runner in impressive Warwick winner Theatre Glory.

He added: “She has been a grand mare for her owners Canter Banter Racing and was very impressive at Warwick last time, which was why the decision was made to supplement for this rather than run in the Coral Cup.

“She has to improve a little and wouldn’t want the ground too soft, but she deserves to take her chance and I really hope she runs a nice race and gives everyone a great day out.”

Gordon Elliott fields Queens Brook
Gordon Elliott fields Queens Brook (David Davies/PA)

Willie Mullins saddles Brandy Love, Echoes In Rain and Shewearsitwell in his bid for a 10th Mares’ Hurdle success, while Gordon Elliott is represented by last year’s runner-up Queens Brook.

“She was very good the last day. If Honeysuckle was in the Champion Hurdle I’d be a bit more confident going for the mares’ race, but she’s never been as well,” said the Cullentra handler.

“Last year she had a terrible preparation and finished second. She’s a good mare and the more ease in the ground, the better chance she’ll have.”

Last season’s Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle winner Love Envoi, trained by Harry Fry, completes the stellar field.

Marie’s Rock taking on Epatante and Honeysuckle in Mares’ Hurdle to savour

Marie’s Rock will defend her crown in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle with the eight-year-old one of three to line up in the race for Nicky Henderson.

Owned by Middleham Park Racing, she got the better of Gordon Elliott’s Queens Brook to triumph 12 months ago and will arrive at Cheltenham on Tuesday unbeaten in four having followed up last year’s success at both the Punchestown Festival and on reappearance in the Relkeel on New Year’s Day.

Much of the speculation in the build-up to the Festival has centred around the possibility of Marie’s Rock stepping up to three miles for a crack at the Stayers’ Hurdle, but with conditions forecast to be on the slow side throughout the week, connections have plumped for the shorter option which could steal the show on the opening day.

Middleham Park’s Tom Palin said: “There’s a bit of an unsettled forecast at the back end of the week and that kind of made our decision for us.

“We’d love to see her over three miles and I’m pretty sure we’ll go to Aintree and see her there in the three-mile Grade One hurdle on Grand National day.

“That’s probably her next target and I’d love to see her over that, but I think the New course is stamina-sapping at the best of times and if you chuck in there soft, or maybe worse than that, you might just be asking a few too many questions in one big hit.”

Marie’s Rock is joined in the line-up by stablemates Epatante and Theatre Glory, who were both late supplementary entries at the six-day stage, while last year’s Mares Novices’ Hurdle winner Love Envoi also takes her chance.

Nicky Henderson saddles three in the Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival
Nicky Henderson saddles three in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival (Zac Goodwin/PA)

The race is also the place for Honeysuckle’s farewell to the racecourse as the dual Champion Hurdle heroine looks to record her fourth straight Festival victory and recapture the prize she won in 2020.

“She’s gone over and it’s exciting having her going over there again,” said trainer Henry de Bromhead.

“We’ll see what Tuesday brings, she seems in great form and everyone seems happy.”

On it being a hot renewal, De Bromhead added: “Absolutely, but no more than you’d expect. We’re delighted to have her going and we’ll see how it unfolds.”

Willie Mullins saddles four as 14 go to post for the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Facile Vega heads the bookmakers lists looking to give the master of Closutton a sixth victory in the race in the past 10 years, while his Dublin Racing Festival conqueror and stablemate Il Etait Temps is also in the mix.

Facile Vega looks to bounce back at the Cheltenham Festival
Facile Vega looks to bounce back at the Cheltenham Festival (Donall Farmer/PA)

Royal Bond scorer Marine Nationale, Tolworth champion Tahmuras and one-time Derby favourite High Definition are all other notable entries.

Two powerhouses are set to clash in the Sporting Life Arkle with El Fabiolo and Jonbon the main players among the nine declared, while Gaillard Du Mesnil is the choice of Patrick Mullins in the concluding Wellchild National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Jockeys’ Novices’ Chase.

There are 23 declared for the Ultima Handicap Chase where Corach Rambler looks to defend his crown, while a full field heads to post for a typically ultra-competitive edition of the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.

‘No firm decision’ as connections of Marie’s Rock weigh up Festival choice

Connections of Marie’s Rock are still no nearer to determining whether she will defend her Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle or instead attempt to land the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham next week.

The Nicky Henderson-trained eight-year-old made a sparkling return to action, winning the Relkeel Hurdle on New Year’s Day, having not run since taking a second successive Grade One victory in the Mares’ Champion Hurdle at Punchestown last April.

The Middleham Park Racing-owned mare will be seeking a fifth consecutive victory regardless of which race she contests.

She is a general 3-1 joint second-favourite behind Honeysuckle for the two-and-a-half-mile Mares’ Hurdle on Tuesday and a general 7-2 second-favourite for Thursday’s three-mile Stayers’ Hurdle.

Middleham Park racing manager Tom Palin said the weather will play a major part in their decision.

He said: “There are no firm plans, I’m afraid. I know Nicky is championing the Stayers’ but in our conversations, there isn’t a firm decision.

“He wouldn’t be solely in the Stayers’ camp, nor am I solely in the Mares’ camp.

“I think I’d be right in saying neither of us would want to try her over three miles on the testing course at Cheltenham in soft ground.

“We do need to see just what the weather does and that is obviously very unsettled at the moment.”

Blazing Khal has headed the Stayers’ Hurdle market since winning the Boyne Hurdle at Navan last month, on his first start in 14 months.

However, he subsequently suffered a setback and trainer Charles Byrne will give him a final piece of work on Friday before determining whether or not he will take his chance.

“Blazing Khal has a date with destiny tomorrow by all accounts, so that is something to factor in,” added Palin.

“If the Stayers’ Hurdle favourite isn’t in the race tomorrow afternoon, that is something sizable to take in. There is nothing set in stone.

“We will probably make the decision at 9.50am on Sunday. If there hadn’t been any rain around and Blazing Khal was out, I would say that would have a very, very big swing on where we go, I would imagine.

“But it doesn’t look like it will be guaranteed good ground at this point.”

Henderson also has the JP McManus-owned Epatante – who was overturned by Marie’s Rock when odds-on favourite at Punchestown – entered in the Mares’ Hurdle.

Potentially the race registered at the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle is one the most competitive events of the four-day meeting.

Nicky Henderson also has Epatante in the Mares' Hurdle
Nicky Henderson also has Epatante in the Mares’ Hurdle (David Davies/PA)

Palin added: “If it is soft ground, like it is probably going to be on Tuesday, the extra stamina that we might have in a Stayers’ will surely come to the fore in the Mares’.

“Soft ground, up that hill, is Epatante guaranteed to get it in soft ground? That is a question.

“Lest we forget, we are 1-0 against her, having beaten her at Punchestown.

“It could be a mouthwatering race. The winners of the last three Champion Hurdles taking each other on, and you put in there Marie’s Rock, who is no slouch and is defending champion, and arguably the best filly in training this side of the Irish Sea, then chuck in young pretenders like Love Envoi, Brandy Love and Theatre Glory, and it really is the race of the meeting!”

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.

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.

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.”

No rush to commit to Cheltenham target with Marie’s Rock

Nicky Henderson is likely to make a late call on whether Marie’s Rock runs in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle or steps up in trip for the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Winner of the Mares’ Hurdle last season, she beat the boys on her only outing to date this term in the Relkeel, but she has yet to run over three miles.

“Marie’s Rock is in very, very good form. There is a question with Marie’s Rock and it is definitely possible she can move up and run in the Stayers’ Hurdle,” said Henderson.

“Tom Palin (of owners Middleham Park) and I have discussed it and no doubt we will discuss a lot more. It certainly won’t be a decision we’ll make in the near future and we’ll just have to wait and see.

“I know she hasn’t run over three miles, but she won very well in the Relkeel on New Year’s Day. She’s stayed well both times she has won at Cheltenham, she flies up the hill and I thought she was very impressive on New Year’s Day. She’s fit, fresh and well and all things are ready to go and we will have to consider.

“The horse who won yesterday (Blazing Khal), I don’t know the horse at all to be honest with you and there are a few around at the moment – Gordon’s horse (Teahupoo), he looks the best I’ve seen. You have got to always respect old Paisley Park. They are not bad but there is no standout.

“Now in the Mares’ you are going to have Epatante, you are going to have Honeysuckle, you might even have Theatre Glory. So there is a bit to be said for at least considering the Stayers’, but we can sit on that and the ground might have a good bit to do with it.”

Theatre Glory is also trained by Henderson and was very impressive at Warwick on Saturday.

Theatre Glory has improved markedly with each outing this term
Theatre Glory has improved markedly with each outing this term (Tim Goode/PA)

He said: “Theatre Glory would want really good ground. She has to be supplemented as does Epatante, but you can take it they are intended runners.

“I’ve said from the beginning when it appeared Epatante hadn’t been entered, she should be treated as a runner for betting purposes because it’s 50-50 whether she goes Champion Hurdle or Mares’. Just because she’s not in the race, doesn’t mean she won’t run. She can be in the race and so could Theatre Glory.”

Epatante’s options are another crack at the Champion Hurdle which she won in 2020 or to take on her own sex.

“Epatante has run once over two and a half miles at Aintree and she stayed very well, she won very easily that day,” said Henderson.

Nicky Henderson and Epatante on Monday morning
Nicky Henderson and Epatante on Monday morning (David Davies/PA)

“It was great to see her win like that at Doncaster the other day, it was very impressive. I know she beat nothing but at least she has shown what Constitution Hill is beating.

“What she showed the other day is how good Constitution Hill is, given he keeps slamming her and then she can come out and beat her own playmates as easily as that. I thought she was superb the other day and she jumped excellently.”

Should she run in the Mares’ Hurdle she will face Honeysuckle, who has beaten her in the Champion the last two seasons.

“I can see their point to be fair. Both her runs this year would suggest she is just not quite where she was last year and I think an extra half a mile is going to help her, so I think it is the sensible thing to do,” Henderson said of the decision to keep Honeysuckle to her own sex.

“Having got a couple of mares of our own, I think I would have preferred her in the Champion Hurdle, but she’s been great and really great for the game.

“Most people would like to see her go out in a blaze of glory winning the Mares’. I’m afraid I’m probably one of the only people who wouldn’t find that so popular.”

Henderson is still leaning towards running Luccia in the Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle despite her impressive display at Exeter on Sunday.

She holds an entry in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, for which she would get a 7lb mares’ allowance, but Henderson would need convincing to roll the dice.

The fact she is around 10-1 for the Supreme and 7-4 favourite for the Mares’ Novices’ is also weighing on Henderson’s mind.

“Luccia ought to go for the Mares’. She was impressive yesterday. Nico (de Boinville) was tempted by the Supreme but the betting tells you what you’ve got to do, surely?” said Henderson.

“You don’t have to decide yet. We did put her in it, which I thought was ambitious at the time anyway. I would be in favour of sticking to the Mares’ I must admit.

“Paul (Sandy, owner) and I will have a chat nearer the time and if there was a forfeit stage tomorrow we’d leave her in, but I can’t believe you’d throw away the Mares’. I’m not saying she will win that, but at least you know you’ve a very good chance of having a winner.

“I do like having the winner of the Supreme because it sets you up for the rest of the week, but we haven’t anything else so we’ll see. I’ll have a look but I can’t believe it’s the right thing to do.

“In the years of Altior and Shishkin, we were heading to the Supreme with confidence. I couldn’t come out and say we thought we’d win, but I remember in Min’s year all we heard was Min, Min Min and I just thought ‘good luck because you won’t beat Altior’. I couldn’t say that about Luccia.”