Daily Mail

Marie’s Rock to defend title

- By MARCUS TOWNEND Racing Correspond­ent

MARIE’S ROCK will defend her crown in tomorrow’s Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle after the threat of soft Cheltenham Festival ground scuppered the plan to up her to three miles for the first time in Thursday’s Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle. Nico de Boinville will ride Marie’s Rock, who was last seen winning the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham by six lengths on New Year’s Day. Trainer Nicky Henderson will now have three runners in the two-and-a-half-mile Grade One mares’ race, with 2020 Champion Hurdle winner Epatante (Aidan Coleman) and Theatre Glory (Daryl Jacob) also representi­ng him. This year’s running of the race may be the strongest ever with the line-up also including the Henry de Bromhead-trained dual Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckl­e, who will be racing for the final time before being retired to stud. Marie’s Rock is owned by Middleham Park Racing, whose National Hunt racing manager Tom Palin said: ‘I would love to see her over three miles in the near future and that will probably happen at Aintree next month when there is a Grade One race on Grand National day. ‘With the ground due to be soft or even worse we have decided to save the three-mile experiment for another day. She is the defending Mares’ Hurdle champion but it is a serious line-up this year. It will be a fascinatin­g race.’

The first day of the Festival is big for Henderson with his unbeaten star Constituti­on Hill odds-on favourite for the Unibet Champion Hurdle. He will face six opponents headed by Willie Mullins-trained Irish Champion Hurdle winner State Man. Henderson’s Jonbon and the Mullins-trained El Fabiolo are the principal contenders for the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase and Henderson has booked leading Irish amateur jockey Derek O’Connor for Mister Coffey in the Wellchild National Hunt Chase. Mullins-trained Gentleman De Mee (Queen Mother Champion Chase) and Joseph O’Brien’s Comfort Zone (Triumph Hurdle) have been ruled out of the meeting with an infection and injury respective­ly.

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