Nicky Henderson is excited to see his Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante make her seasonal reappearance in the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday.
The JP McManus-owned mare will be making her first competitive appearance since providing her trainer with with an eight victory in the feature event of the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Henderson has already won the Fighting Fifth on five occasions – and Epatante will be the red-hot favourite to add to his tally, with good ground forecast in the north-east.
Speaking on a Zoom call with the media at Kempton on Monday, Henderson said: “I think she’s pretty versatile ground-wise, but by and large we all want good ground for these races – it just makes for better racing. She’s a speedy filly and good ground will be ideal.
“She went to the Gerry Feilden at Newbury on the same weekend last year and won that off a mark of 137. It was a big jump up for the Christmas Hurdle, but it proved to be a very good call.
“We didn’t run her again until the Champion Hurdle and she obviously didn’t run afterwards as that was the end of the season.
“She had a gallop at Newbury last week and did her last piece of work this morning, which went very well. All her serious work is done.”
Aidan Coleman is set to partner Epatante for the first time since her Gerry Feilden success of 12 months ago, and is set to get reacquainted with his big-race mount in a Lambourn schooling session on Tuesday.
“Aidan won the Gerry Feilden on her and is due to come and sit on her and just jump five hurdles on her tomorrow morning. Then, off she heads up north,” Henderson added.
“The timing of the Fighting Fifth is good for the Christmas Hurdle, whereas the International at Cheltenham is a little bit too close. If you’re heading down that route, which we’d like to, the Fighting Fifth fits in well.
“If all goes well here and at Christmas, you probably wouldn’t run her again until the Champion Hurdle.”
Henderson also left Marie’s Rock in the Fighting Fifth at Monday’s confirmation stage, but she is instead set to contest this year’s Gerry Feilden.
The trainer added: “We waited to see what the entries were like and decided to stick her in at 11.45am, just in case anything goes horribly wrong (with Epatante).
“I would like her to run in the Gerry Feilden.”
The Seven Barrows handler also provided a positive update on Buveur D’Air, who has been off the track since suffering defeat and a nasty foot injury in last year’s Fighting Fifth.
Henderson said: “Buveur D’Air is in very good form and coming along really well, so he comes into the equation somewhere.
“I’m not sure when and I’m not sure where, but we’re very pleased with his progress. The vets in England and Ireland have done a fantastic job and the horse looks terrific.
“He’s used the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown (in February) when he’s won the Champion Hurdle. It’s at the right time and the right place and one of the obvious places he could go, although he would be ready before that.
“He’s still got a long way to go. I would like to think having got this far we’ve overcome it (the injury), but we’ll take it one step at a time.
“He was unlucky not to complete his Champion Hurdle hat-trick when he fell, so life hasn’t always been that easy for him.”
Epatante and Marie’s Rock were two of 10 horses confirmed for the Fighting Fifth, with last year’s shock winner Cornerstone Lad set to defend his crown for Micky Hammond following a recent Flat success at Redcar.
Silver Streak was third behind Cornerstone Lad and Buveur D’Air 12 months ago, and his trainer Evan Williams will be hoping for a sound surface on his return to Gosforth Park this weekend.
Sceau Royal has already won the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las and the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton this season, while the Nicky Richards-trained Ribble Valley is set for a step up in class after impressing on his Carlisle comeback.
Millers Bank (Alex Hales), Not So Sleepy (Hughie Morrison), Solo Saxophone (Ben Haslam) and Voix Du Reve (Iain Jardine) complete the potential field, with Epatante installed as the 4-7 market leader with the sponsors.