It’s the time of the year when jumps racing’s biggest trainers start hosting the media at their respective stables as the Cheltenham Festival approaches, and the spotlight was on Seven Barrows on February 13 as it was veteran handler Nicky Henderson’s turn to put on a spread for a stable visit.
The trainer might be 72 years of age these days, but he arguably has the second best contingent of horses heading to Prestbury Park for the Festival — with Constitution Hill, Jonbon, Luccia and Marie’s Rock just four of his horses that could gain him access to the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham Racecourse this year.
However, while Constitution Hill and Jonbon are locked in for the Champion Hurdle and the Arkle — coming in as the first and second favourites with those looking for Cheltenham bets for the respective day one contests — there are still some question marks surrounding where Luccia and Marie’s Rock will end up running.
Luccia looks primed to still be targeted for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle despite many claiming she should be rerouted for the Supreme after yet another dominant display to win a Listed Novices’ Hurdle at Exeter earlier this month — including jockey Nico de Boinville. But Henderson is still swaying towards the mares’ contest.
The same perhaps can’t be said about Marie’s Rock, with the 72-year-old claiming it is a possibility that the eight-year-old is stepped up in trip for the Stayers’ Hurdle instead of defending her Mares’ Hurdle crown in the two-mile, four-furlong contest on Champions Day.
“She’s in very good form, but there is a question and it’s possible she could move up and run in the Stayers’,” Henderson said. “Tom Palin of Middleham Park and I have discussed it and won’t make a decision in the near future.
“We’ll wait and see. Blazing Khal won on Sunday and there’s Teahupoo in the Stayers’ as well. He looks the best I’ve seen and you’ve got to respect dear old Paisley Park, but there’s no standout.”
“In the Mares’, you could have Epatante and Honeysuckle, so we have to at least consider the Stayers’ but we can sit on that and the ground might play its part. She’s never run over three miles but she’s flown up the hill on her last two starts at Cheltenham.”
The betting would suggest that Marie’s Rock stands the best chance of winning in the Mares’, currently sitting at around 4/1 in the ante-post markets. But with Honeysuckle now being rerouted there for her swansong as a third Champion Hurdle is out of the question, it appears her presence along with the danger of Epatante has planted a seed of doubt in Henderson’s mind.
Indeed, the Stayers’ looks like a wide-open race this year with dual winner Flooring Porter flattering to deceive with two fourth-place finishes this season and the market constantly fluctuating at the top — as Teahupoo gained favouritism after going two for two this campaign before Blazing Khal closed in with a win after a 428-day layoff.
At 5/2 and 7/2 respectively, they appear to be the horses to beat over the three-mile trip — and Marie’s Rock is 7/1 to do so. The major doubt is whether or not she stays the trip. The Middleham Park Racing-owned horse is not tried and tested over the grueling distance like those aforementioned horses, but the seven pound mares’ allowance could help her chances and she has proven she has no issues up the Cheltenham hill.
We would still be more inclined to side with the Mares’ Hurdle, however. Marie’s Rock has plenty of course and distance form — winning this race last year and the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham back on New Year’s Day — to compete with Honeysuckle and stablemate Epatante and we wouldn’t back against her storming up the hill to victory once again.