By Nick Seddon
Nicky Henderson is confident that his star mare Epatante is back to her best, as he bids to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle at The Festival™ supporting WellChild for a ninth time. The master of Seven Barrows is already the most successful trainer in the history of the Unibet Champion Hurdle with eight victories - See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987), Punjabi (2009), Binocular (2010), Buveur D'Air (2017, 2018) and Epatante (2020).
The seven-year-old was a brilliant three-length winner of the Grade One contest 12 months ago, and was equally impressive when making a winning return in the Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in December.
However, a shock defeat to the Evan Williams-trained Silver Streak in the Grade One Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle at Kempton later that month saw Epatante drift out to 3-1 second favourite with the sponsor for next month’s Unibet Champion Hurdle behind the Irish-trained mare Honeysuckle (5-2), who won the Irish equivalent for the second time at Leopardstown earlier this month.
It was a performance that disappointed Henderson, but he has reported his charge to be in good form, and is confident that he’s got his mare back on track.
Goshen impressed Nicky Henderson in the Kingwell Hurdle
He said: “Kempton was disappointing because she was very, very good in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle. Christmas just didn’t go her way, she wasn’t herself, but fair play to the winner Silver Streak, who was very good and set a proper test, and we were at no stage really in a position to have a crack at him.
“We have a few things ironed out I hope because obviously she is better than that but Silver Streak was very good on the day and we weren’t - but I think we’re back in the right place now.
“Newcastle was a bit of a mess because Silver Streak was taken out with another early on and that emptied the race a fair bit, but take nothing away from her, she was very impressive. She picked up Sceau Royal who was leading to the last and she went past him with so much class.
“She looked wonderful there, and if we’ve got her back there, she’s got as good a chance as any.”
Henderson has a strong hand for this year’s race and also sends two-time winner Buveur D’Air (2017 and 2018), who missed last year’s race through injury.
The 10-year-old was second in testing conditions on his first start for 420 days in the Grade Two The New One Unibet Hurdle at Haydock in January, and it was an outing which pleased Henderson.
He said: “We’ve always in the past used the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown for Buveur D’Air and I rather felt we were a fortnight ahead of where I envisaged we’d be, so I went to Haydock and I don’t think he’d have been any fitter in another fortnight’s time.
“The Contenders was abandoned which actually only left the Elite Hurdle as an opportunity and I don’t really think that Wincanton was his sort of place.
“Haydock was particularly testing and we were in a period where only two going descriptions were available – abandoned or heavy – so you either took it and got on with it or stayed at home.
“It did just find him out at Haydock, I thought we were going to get there going to the last but he probably just emptied a bit and he was entitled to in that ground but it did him the world of good and he’s in good shape.
“I honestly think Buveur D’Air has been forgotten and he’s out with the washing at the moment, while Epatante is sharing favouritism with Honeysuckle and Goshen and it’s all going to be very competitive.”
Speaking of Goshen, Henderson was complimentary of trainer Gary Moore, after the five year old returned to winning ways in the Grade Two Betway Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton on Saturday.
He said: “I’ve got to say I really do commend the Gary Moore team for getting Goshen back, because at the Triumph Hurdle last year he looked to be certainly one of our biggest threats this year, and then it looked as if he wasn’t on the radar at all. They’ve done a brilliant job to get him back and he looks a very potent threat so we’ll see what we can do about that.”
Meanwhile, Henderson still has both Verdana Blue and Buzz in the race at the moment, but explained that both horses will likely head elsewhere.
He said: “Verdana Blue is in that and the Mares’ Hurdle, we’ll have to see what the ground is for her – she’s always been rather dependant on good ground. We’ll probably have a look at the Mares’ Hurdle.
“Buzz was in there on the grounds that should he have won the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury with top weight it would probably have shown him as a Champion Hurdle horse, but he looks to me as a horse who wants a bit further than two miles, and he’ll probably switch.”Fancy winning a 50" television, a 12-month Racing TV subscription, a Reclining Armchair plus much more? Click here to enter our Ultimate Cheltenham At Home competition!
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