Five fantastic chances for Henderson in quest to plunder eighth Champion Hurdle
Nicky Henderson paraded his five aces for the Unibet Champion Hurdle on Monday when he insisted there was more to Epatante – the market leader for the opening day highlight at the Cheltenham Festival – than being a flat-track bully.
Pentland Hills, Fusil Raffles, Call Me Lord and Verdana Blue will also be part of the party alongside Epatante, who is the 100-30 favourite with Betfair Sportsbook.
Speaking at a media event, Henderson said: "Epatante, Pentland Hills, Call Me Lord, Fusil Raffles and Verdana Blue wouldn't go there if I didn't think they had realistic chances and I can live with all of them.
"If I was going in with just one of them – any of them – you'd still be hopeful, but you might as well go in with five hopes. They've got to run and there's only one Champion Hurdle and they're entitled to be there.
"We'll probably have a game in the yard where we get everyone to name the order they'll finish in, but I suspect no one will get it right!"
A winner at undulating Exeter albeit in minor company, Epatante won the Gerry Feilden before bolting up in the Christmas Hurdle, although she flopped when fancied for the Mares' Novices' Hurdle at last year's festival – leaving some to ponder her credentials for the famous Cheltenham hill.
Henderson, whose seven Champion Hurdle triumphs is a record, believes a bad reaction to a flu jab offers a better alibi for Epatante's display 12 months ago.
"Last year, there were four or five who didn't turn up at Cheltenham and I'd have said it was probably flu vaccination related, and I think she fell into that," he said.
"I've read she can only go on flat tracks, but just because she didn't run well at Cheltenham the only time she's been there, I don't think that's the case. If it doesn't work again, I'll have to agree with those who say she's only good around Kempton, but at the moment I've no worries.
"This time last year, I thought she was one of our best chances for the festival and she was disappointing, but I can name four or five others who were definitely affected by the flu jabs."
Last year's Triumph Hurdle winner Pentland Hills has finished fifth in the International Hurdle and second in the Haydock race known as the Champion Hurdle Trial and has had a breathing procedure Henderson likened to "tightening a screw".
He is second favourite for the Champion Hurdle at 5-1 and the trainer added: "Pentland Hills will have a racecourse gallop and has had his palate cauterised since Haydock. That isn't because we're hearing noises and I doubt it will make any difference, but there's something there as both times this season it's looked like he's come to win his race. I don't think he's done anything wrong and maybe it was the bad ground, but he hasn't finished it off as it looks like he would.
"There can be what we call silent noises and you don't hear anything, and it just feels a little bit like that, and maybe he's not getting enough at the end. It might help him, it might not, but it's just an effort to make sure everything is in place.
"He wants to switch off a bit more as well and we will probably drop him in a bit, but he's such a good jumper that he's taking you there the whole time. He worked very well on Saturday and appears in great form."
Henderson's seven Champion Hurdle heroes
See You Then 1985, 1986, 1987
Buveur D'Air 2017, 2018
Fusil Raffles, a Grade 1-winning juvenile last term and 16-1 chance at Cheltenham next month, was pulled up behind Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle and Henderson is open to running him in the Kingwell Hurdle, which has been rescheduled for Kempton on Saturday.
"We weren't going to go to Wincanton for the Kingwell on Saturday in that ground," he continued. "He'd run only if it was very good ground, but I'm happy to go down the racecourse gallop route with him. He was very disappointing at Kempton and that's why I would have liked to run again."
Call Me Lord, who won the International, and classy mare Verdana Blue, are 33-1 shots.
"I thought Call Me Lord was a bit flat at Sandown the other day, so we're just freshening him up and he's proven he's not totally biased going right-handed, while soft ground suits, but that is not the case with Verdana," Henderson said.
"The ground is never going to be good at Cheltenham and if it was soft or heavy she might not run, but she's in very good form."
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