Marie's Rock and Nico de Boinville © Photo Healy Racing
The Middleham Park Racing team expect to have a clearer idea about Marie’s Rock’s potential ambitions for the rest of the season after she takes on two staying stalwarts in the Coral Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury on Friday.
Nicky Henderson’s mare claimed back-to-back Grade One wins at the Cheltenham and Punchestown festivals in the spring of 2022 and made a triumphant return from eight months out of action when beating the boys in the Relkeel Hurdle at Prestbury Park on New Year’s Day.
By racing manager Tom Palin’s own admission, the decision to run in the Mares’ Hurdle rather than the Stayers’ Hurdle on her return to Cheltenham in March did not pay off, with Marie’s Rock finishing a well-beaten seventh behind Honeysuckle.
But with the eight-year-old subsequently proving her worth over three miles when runner-up to Sire Du Berlais at Aintree, there is no doubt about which route she is pursuing this term.
“It’s great to get her out a month and a bit sooner than we were able to last year and she seems in great form with herself,” said Palin.
“She went to Newbury last Tuesday, which was a good away day for her as she is quite excitable, and it just helped to burn off some of that freshness and excitement.
“We’ve had this race in mind since Aintree and she’s not missed a day. Her schooling at home has been excellent, her work at home has been excellent and we couldn’t be happier with her coming into this.
“She’s fit enough to do herself justice. Obviously she’ll come on for it after 230 days off the racetrack, but that’s going to be the same for anyone who hasn’t had a race.”
Marie’s Rock is set to face two veterans of the division in Paisley Park and Dashel Drasher – but while Palin is respectful of both, he is more than happy to take them on.
He added: “It’s kind of over to us now, isn’t it? We’ve got the established servants of the staying division in dear old Paisley Park and Dashel Drasher, who we know quite well as we’ve taken him on twice and come out the right side on both occasions.
“Both horses deserve the utmost respect, but the division is kind of crying out for a slightly younger gun to have their moment in the sun and Marie’s Rock seems the likely candidate at this stage.
“Whether that’s still the case at 3.08pm on Friday, we’ll have to wait and see, but I’m hugely excited about running her in this race, as are the team, and it should firmly establish where we are in the British staying pecking order.”
It is four years since Paisley Park struck gold in the Long Distance Hurdle and he has been placed in each of the three runnings since.
Emma Lavelle’s pride and joy is clearly in the twilight of his career at the age of 11, but the Wiltshire-based trainer is pleased with what she has seen at home in recent weeks.
She said: “He has just been such a star and is loving his training.
“He looks great and he went to Newbury for the press morning and had a lovely time just having a gallop round.
“He seems in really good shape but the proof is always in the running, so we will get him out and we will go and see what happens.
“He’s showing at home that he is loving what he is doing and we have had a good preparation. He schooled really well on Tuesday and was tanking along, so hopefully we will get a feel as to where we are.
“There are going to be horses in there with younger legs, but he has a heart of a lion. He is unbelievable how he keeps turning up and he loves his routine. It’s very special to have him and we will just decide race by race where we go.”
Unlike his two main rivals, Jeremy Scott’s Dashel Drasher is race-fit, having finished a creditable third on his seasonal debut in the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby four weeks ago.
Scott had hoped to run his stable star in last Saturday’s 1965 Chase at Ascot, but felt he would be unsuited by the drying ground over fences, so he instead sticks to the smaller obstacles in Berkshire.
Deborah Cole’s Flight Deck, the Paul Nicholls-trained Hugos New Horse and Mahons Glory from Patrick Neville’s yard complete the field.