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.
A tweet from Middleham Park Racing’s Tom Palin said: “With the amount of rain around we have decided to run Marie’s Rock in the Mares’ Hurdle and in turn give her the chance to defend her crown at Cheltenham.
“She will be ridden by Nico de Boinville in what does look to be one of the most mouthwatering races of the meeting.”
She 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.
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.
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.
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