Epatante ready to lead Seven Barrows quartet in Champion challenge

Henderson has ‘no worries’ about mare handling Cheltenham.

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Epatante will lead a four-strong team for Nicky Henderson into battle in this year’s Unibet Champion Hurdle.

It is 35 years since See You Then provided Henderson with the first of his record seven victories to date in the feature event on day one of the Cheltenham Festival.

See You Then would go on to complete a hat-trick with wins in 1986 and 1987, while Punjabi (2009), Binocular (2010) and dual victor Buveur D’Air (2017, 2018) have all struck gold for the Seven Barrows team since.

Few would have marked down Epatante as a likely Champion Hurdle winner at the start of the campaign, especially considering she was one of the biggest disappointments of last year’s Festival in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.

However, runaway victories at Newbury and in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton have seen her rocket to the top of ante-post lists for what appears a wide-open renewal of the two-mile hurdling showpiece.

A minor scare when giving a few coughs one day last month happily proved to be just that, quickly resolving itself, and Henderson has no worries about the track, despite events of last year.

He said: “Epatante was very disappointing at Cheltenham last year, there’s no getting away from it.

“There were a few that didn’t show up like they should have done because of the flu vaccinations, and I think she was one of them.

“I’ve read in some places she can only go on a flat track, just because she didn’t run very well at Cheltenham on the only time that she has been there – I don’t think that was the track.

“If it doesn’t work again I will have to agree with those that have concluded she is only any good around Kempton, but at the moment I’ve no worries.”

There are no course concerns for Epatante’s Triumph Hurdle-winning stablemate of 12 months ago, Pentland Hills.

In two starts so far this season, the five-year-old has travelled like winner before faltering – most recently getting pipped on the post by Ballyandy in a Champion Hurdle trial at Haydock, since when he has been given a minor wind operation.

“Pentland Hills wants to switch off a little bit more, and I think we will drop him in a bit more than we have done,” added Henderson.

“The trouble is he is such a good jumper he is taking you there all the time.

“Both times he has come there and looked like he has come to win his race. I don’t think he has done anything wrong. They have just been races in bad ground both times.”

The Henderson quartet is completed by Fusil Raffles, pulled up behind Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle, and Call Me Lord, who won the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December, but suffered an odds-on defeat on his latest outing at Sandown.

Henderson said: “Fusil Raffles was very disappointing at Kempton, but he could still come back into it.

“Call Me Lord was a little bit flat there at Sandown the other day, but he has won the International and he goes round Cheltenham.”

Willie Mullins has saddled four of the last nine winners of the Champion Hurdle, and this year fires a twin assault.

With Klassical Dream and Saldier both ruled out earlier in the season because of injury, the Irish champion trainer decided to supplement Cilaos Emery after he successfully reverted to hurdles from fences in last month’s Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park.

Mullins said: “We’ve decided to go down this route purely because it’s such an open Champion Hurdle. You can see how hard it is to get horses to a Champion Hurdle, so he’ll take his chance.

“He wasn’t spectacular at the end of the race in Gowran, but I thought what he did coming down the hill in putting the race to bed was good enough for me.

“He should be improving. He could go chasing again down the line, but let’s see what he does in the Champion Hurdle first.

“He can mix it – I’m not afraid to do that if they show they are able to do it.”

Cilaos Emery’s stable companion Sharjah was an impressive winner at Leopardstown over Christmas, but returns to Cheltenham with something to prove following an abject display in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

“His last run was terrible. He missed the first hurdle down the back in Leopardstown, and we don’t know why because he’s usually a very good jumper,” Mullins added.

“I’d prefer drier ground for him, but I don’t think he’s ground dependent. Horses do handle softer ground as they get older.”

The Irish challenge also features the second, third and fourth from the Irish Champion Hurdle in Gavin Cromwell’s Darver Star, Henry de Bromhead’s Petit Mouchoir and the Jessica Harrington-trained Supasundae.

Darver Star was rated just 104 this time last year, but has made huge improvement and bids to provide his trainer with a second successive win in the Champion Hurdle following the victory of the ill-fated Espoir D’Allen 12 months ago.

Cromwell said: “He had a racecourse gallop at Leopardstown (last week), and I am very pleased with him going into the race.

“It looks wide open, and I think Cheltenham will suit him. He is the same sort of price as Espoir D’Allen was last year.

“He stays, travels and jumps well. I think he will be staying on up the hill strongly, and hopefully he has a live chance.”

Gordon Elliott’s Coeur Sublime and Joseph O’Brien’s Darasso complete the raiding party.

O’Brien said: “He is a big price, but if you aren’t in it you can’t win it. Our lad goes there in great shape and I think the course and distance will really suit him, while we know he handles soft ground.”

Ballyandy (Nigel Twiston-Davies), Cornerstone Lad (Micky Hammond), Gumball (Philip Hobbs), Le Patriote (Dr Richard Newland), Not So Sleepy (Hughie Morrison) and Silver Streak (Evan Williams) are the other hopefuls.

Epatante ready to lead Seven Barrows quartet in Champion challenge

Cheltenham 15:30, 10 March 2020

Cheltenham 15:30, 10 March 2020

Cheltenham 15:30, 10 March 2020

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