What started as a day to forget for Nicky Henderson quickly turned into one to savour, as Epatante secured him a record-extending eighth Unibet Champion Hurdle victory.
Having been forced to rule stable star Altior out of his bid for a third Champion Chase before setting off from his Lambourn base in the morning, it was going to take something special to lift the spirits of the Seven Barrows maestro on day one of the Cheltenham Festival.
Shishkin went some way to achieving that when providing the hors d’oeuvres with a gutsy success in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, before Epatante further softened the Altior blow – and in some style as the 2-1 favourite.
Henderson – now on 66 career winners at the Festival, one ahead of Willie Mullins – said: “That was a bruising blow, to leave Altior, your linchpin, at home, but he is in safe hands and we will have him back.
“In the meantime we have got to get on with what we have got, but they are playing the game, thank God.
“It is a good start and there is a long way to go, but you would settle for this any day of your life. All these Champion Hurdle horses that turn up, I’m just a very lucky person.
“If you get surrounded by good horses and good people, it becomes quite a lot easier.”
Not even Henderson, with all his years of experience, could have predicted the meteoric rise Epatante has enjoyed this season – something which he largely attributes is down to winning owner JP McManus and his team back at Martinstown Stud.
Henderson said: “If you go back even further than (November, when Buveur D’Air was injured at Newcastle), he (McManus) lost last year’s Champion Hurdle winner Espoir D’Allen, then we lost Buveur D’Air – who will be back we hope – so he has come here with virtually his third string.
“That is some testament to him, Martinstown and the team around him, that you can pull another out the bag when you have technically lost your one and two.”
Though Henderson knew he was dealing with a different horse to the one that suffered a shock defeat as short-priced favourite in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle 12 months ago, nothing was being taken for granted following a recent minor health scare.
He said: “I was going back to last year when I thought she would win the novice hurdle and she didn’t show up at all.
“She coughed for two days the other week and we said so straight away, and as soon as she read the paper the next day she stopped.
“One hoped it wasn’t the track or the crowd and we did everything to eliminate those things, and anyway she looked good the whole way round and Barry (Geraghty) gave her a beautiful ride.
And if victory for Henderson was the timely boost he needed, it also provided triumphant owner McManus with the perfect way to celebrate his 69th birthday – at a meeting he savours having winners at above anywhere else.
McManus said: “I was delighted that Barry rode her with such confidence and he bided his time. I’d say she traded short on the machine (betting exchanges).
“We came here last year to Cheltenham and I said give me one for the week and I don’t care if it is mine or not and he said let me tell you it is yours, Epatante.
“She came here and she wasn’t herself on the day and you could see that she wasn’t right, but it was worth waiting for.”