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Epatante and Buveur D’Air on course for Champion Hurdle

Last year’s heroine Epatante and dual winner Buveur D’Air are among 27 entries for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Buveur D’Air claimed the two-mile hurdling crown in both 2017 and 2018 for trainer Nicky Henderson and owner JP McManus, before falling at the third flight when bidding for the hat-trick two years ago.

He was unable to run in last year’s renewal because injury, but Henderson and McManus found a super-sub in Epatante, who provided the Seven Barrows handler with a record eighth victory in the race and McManus his ninth.

Epatante remains the clear favourite for this year’s Champion Hurdle, despite suffering a shock defeat to admirable grey Silver Streak when defending her crown in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Nicky Henderson with Buveur D'Air
Nicky Henderson with Buveur D’Air (Steven Paston/PA)

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Buveur D’Air has not been seen in competitive action since suffering a freak hoof injury in the the 2019 Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, but is reported to be closing in on a comeback.

Henderson is responsible for six entries in all – with his team also including Buzz, Call Me Lord, Marie’s Rock and Verdana Blue.

Willie Mullins has five contenders, headed by last year’s runner-up Sharjah, who recently won his third Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Saint Roi, Saldier, Concertista and new French recruit James Du Berlais complete the Closutton quintet.

Tom Symonds is still undecided as to whether to run his stable star Song For Someone in the Champion Hurdle or wait for the Grand National meeting at Aintree.

The six-year-old has won his last three starts at Grade Two level – completing his hat-trick with a narrow victory over the aforementioned Silver Streak in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last month.

Symonds said: “Song For Someone is in great form, and the plan would be to either run in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham or the Aintree Hurdle. We have entered him in the Champion Hurdle and we will make a decision nearer the time.

“I am absolutely thrilled with him at home. He is very well and seems to have come out of the International in great form.

“There are three races we are currently weighing up, with one of them acting as his prep before one of the big spring festivals. He could go to Haydock for The New One Unibet Hurdle a week on Saturday, the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown Park or the Kingwell at Wincanton.

“I think the weather will play a big part as to what race he actually runs in, and I am not really leaning to any of them at the moment. We will enter him in the three races as they come along and then decide where to go.

“The Champion Hurdle is firmly in the picture, and it would be great to have a runner in a championship race like that.”

Henry de Bromhead has entered unbeaten mare Honeysuckle, Aspire Tower and Jason The Militant – while other hopefuls include Gordon Elliott’s Abacadabras and the Gary Moore-trained Goshen.

Silver Streak will take direct route to Champion Hurdle

Evan Williams will keep Silver Streak fresh and direct the Grade One-winning grey straight to the Unibet Champion Hurdle next.

Having landed his first top-level victory on Boxing Day with the surprise scalp of the reigning champion Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle – adopting front-running tactics for the first time – Silver Streak has become a genuine Cheltenham contender.

However, Williams acknowledges his chance depends almost entirely on the ground – with none of his eight career wins achieved on anything worse than good to soft.

“He deserved it, he tries every time and is very hard on himself,” said Williams, who explained he and jockey Adam Wedge decided on their change of tactics at Kempton after a long discussion.

“We talked and talked, and kept going through the race,” he said.

“The epitome of a fool is someone who keeps doing the same thing and expects a different result.

“We just thought we had to try something different – and thankfully it all worked out.

“It will be straight to the Champion Hurdle now, and we’ll hope for a dry spring – because he is a different horse on that ground.”

Henderson ‘delighted’ as Buveur D’Air returns to training

A third victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle is the ultimate aim for Buveur D’Air, who returned to the care of trainer Nicky Henderson on Friday.

Winner of the Cheltenham Festival feature in 2017 and 2018, Buveur D’Air fell at the third flight when attempting a hat-trick in 2019 – and after the nine-year-old bounced back with victory in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle later that spring, hopes were high he could regain his crown.

However, he suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Cornerstone Lad on his return to action in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle last November and it later transpired a piece of wood had punctured his hoof after he clattered a hurdle during the race, with the injury requiring surgery which ruled him out for the rest of the campaign.

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Buveur D’Air returned to owner JP McManus’ Martinstown Stud for a recovery period, but Henderson is thrilled to have him back at Seven Barrows now, although he will not rush the gelding into action.

He told his Unibet blog: “We were delighted to welcome Buveur D’Air back to Seven Barrows on Friday morning and the team at Martinstown have done a tremendous job because he looks absolutely fantastic and it’s lovely to see his familiar face looking out over the stable door again.

“He’s been doing plenty of trotting on the grass at JP’s place, where they made him a special shoe to help through this current stage and the head lads in Ireland have kept us well up to date with his progress by sending pictures and videos throughout his time there, but he looks fabulous and is now ready to step up his training to the next level.

“We certainly won’t be rushing him and it will be a very steady process, but Hannah (Ryan, pupil assistant) knows him better than any of us, so we’ll take it step by step and gradually build him back up towards attempting to win a third Unibet Champion Hurdle.”

While Buveur D’Air was sidelined, Henderson and McManus still claimed the Champion Hurdle with Epatante and the trainer is eager to keep the pair apart in their Festival preps.

He added: “I must admit I haven’t told him (Buveur D’Air) about Epatante yet, because when he disappeared from the scene nobody had even heard of her, she hadn’t even won the Christmas Hurdle.

“But I imagine the plan for her would be up to Newcastle for the Fighting Fifth followed by Kempton on Boxing Day, whereas Buveur D’Air is obviously much further behind than the rest of the squad and will take a lot more time, so won’t be out in the early part of the season and, barring mishap, we’d be look at races like the Unibet International at Cheltenham and then we’ll probably be getting headaches trying to keep them both apart, but it’s a nice problem to have – albeit all a long way away and we will take each day as it comes.”

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