Epatante storms to Champion Hurdle favouritism after Christmas Hurdle romp
When a splinter all but ruled Buveur D'Air out of the Unibet Champion Hurdle, jumps powerhouses JP McManus and Nicky Henderson needed a replacement. In the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle those prayers were answered as Epatante stepped forward in the most impressive style at Kempton.
The five-year-old mare has always shown promise throughout her career. She was a Grade 1 bumper winner in France and made a striking impression on her hurdles debut at this track last November.
But Epatante has one blip on her CV, a ninth-place effort in last season's Mares' Novices' Hurdle when Henderson, her trainer, described her as "his best chance of the meeting". On Boxing Day those Cheltenham woes were well behind her as she became the new Champion Hurdle favourite with some bookmakers following a dominant five-length win.
Travelling through the testing soft ground with complete ease, she breezed past eventual runner-up Silver Streak before the penultimate obstacle and stayed on powerfully to earn quotes as short as 3-1 for the festival's signature hurdle contest.
"She was impressive, wasn't she? I've even got to admit it myself, it was very good," said Henderson, who was enjoying a ninth win in the race. "We came straight from the Gerry Feilden, I wanted to go to Ascot but it's a good job we didn't. JP [McManus] always wanted to come here and he was absolutely dead right. He must have had more faith than me.
"I thought she was our best chance at Cheltenham last season but she didn't run her race. She did everything right up until then, and has done everything right up until now. She's lovely, has a great temperament and has a good attitude. She was brilliant at Newbury.
"I've only seen Barry [Geraghty] for 30 seconds and he said 'what next, Champion Hurdle, try and win the Champion Hurdle?' so that's what I'd better do."
He added: "She's much more mature now, mentally, and she travelled like a dream there. Last year we went to Cheltenham with a very young horse, but we had the prep at Newbury and today was just perfect."
Henderson was responsible for three of the ten runners, with last year's winner Verdana Blue finishing a fine fourth despite conditions going against her. However, Fusil Raffles, sent off a joint 2-1 favourite with Epatante, was pulled up.
The Seven Barrows trainer said: "It was nothing to do with him [Fusil Raffles], he was just a bit keen and overraced. Verdana [Blue] has run a fantastic race, that's the best she's run on soft ground. She's going off on her travels now to Saudi Arabia [Red Sea Turf Handicap], so I had to get a run into her."
Trainer Evan Williams was delighted with runner-up Silver Streak. He said: "No complaints at all. Everyone says he is best fresh but look at the race he has just run there. We've got to aim at the Champion Hurdle – I'll happily be placed in it again!"
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