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Buveur D’Air poised for Haydock return

Buveur D’Air is set to make his long-awaited return to action at Haydock on Saturday after thrilling trainer Nicky Henderson in an away-day gallop.

The dual Champion Hurdle winner has not been since since suffering a serious injury when runner-up in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in November 2019, with a piece of wood from a hurdle becoming lodged in his foot and requiring surgery.

Nico de Boinville rode the JP McManus-owned 10-year-old in the gallop and is set to be in the saddle for both The New One Unibet Champion Hurdle Trial on Merseyside and the Champion Hurdle itself, with Aidan Coleman maintaining his partnership with Epatante.

Henderson said in his Unibet blog: “I’m pleased to report that Buveur D’Air is coming along extremely well and had an ‘away day’ on Wednesday and I have got to say he was absolutely amazing.

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“To start with he jumped five hurdles at home which was the first time he’d left the ground since the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in 2019 and he certainly hasn’t forgotten anything – he was brilliant!

“His recovery has been nothing short of remarkable and great credit should be given to all the team at Martinstown including John O’Brien and Ger Kelly who did such a good job putting his foot back together, literally.

“I’ve always sort of thought we were ahead of schedule so the time came to give him a serious gallop and after schooling over our hurdles at home we went off elsewhere and jumped seven hurdles over a mile with two lead horses.

Nicky Henderson with dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D'Air
Nicky Henderson with dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D’Air (Steven Paston/PA)

“Then one dropped out and another one joined in and they worked together on the flat for another mile where they quickened and quickened and I have to say it was unreal, he didn’t half quicken up to the end!

“It was wonderful to watch because it’s been some journey to get him back bearing in mind we were even questioning if he’d ever be able to race again, but he has made fantastic progress.

“So much so, that I have decided he’s ready to go and I’m very much thinking about running him in The New One Unibet Hurdle at Haydock next Saturday.”

Of Epatante, who remains on course to head straight to Cheltenham to defend her two-mile crown following a surprise defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, the Seven Barrows handler said: “We checked her out fully after the Christmas Hurdle and nothing came to light.

Barry Geraghty celebrates victory in last year's Champion Hurdle with Epatante
Barry Geraghty celebrates victory in last year’s Champion Hurdle with Epatante (Tim Gode/PA)

“But there was just something not quite right about her coming out of the paddock and JP said to me straight after the race that he didn’t think she was herself along the walkway going out to the track.

“So I’ve watched the replay and he was quite right – she wasn’t her usual self and was shaking about and throwing her head around doing all sorts of things she doesn’t normally do, so that may explain a few things.

“She is perfectly fine and training well and I’m looking forward to Cheltenham in March.”

Henderson reports ‘evidence’ of dirty scope for Altior

Nicky Henderson reports Altior to have returned an unsatisfactory scope following his shock defeat at Kempton.

The 10-year-old was beaten three and a half lengths by 20-1 shot Nube Negra on his seasonal bow in Sunday’s Desert Orchid Chase, struggling from an early stage despite being sent off the evens favourite.

Henderson was quick to underline his faith in the dual Champion Chase hero after the race, and it transpires there may have been an excuse for his performance.

The trainer told told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast: “We had him scoped (after the race) – we can’t scope him again today because it’s a Bank Holiday and the laboratory is shut, but we have reason to continue investigating that.

“There was evidence (of a dirty scope). I spoke to (vet) Simon Knapp last night – he confirmed there was, and we need to do a tracheal wash, which then goes to the laboratory. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find there is something amiss.

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“It’s definitely not normal, because he was scoped on Christmas Eve and we know it was 100 per cent clean, but 48 hours is a long time in a horse’s life.

“It would be enough (to affect his performance) – it would in Simon Knapp’s opinion anyway.”

Henderson plans to ease off briefly with some of his string to ensure all are in top shape as the season builds into the new year.

“We’ve got one or two horses that aren’t quite right,” he said.

“I’ve got five runners tomorrow and then I think I’ve got two more this week – (then) we’re going to have a quiet time, and I think I might leave them alone this week.

“The ground is desperate, and I know we’ve got Sandown at the weekend – but when Sandown is heavy, it’s a completely different kind of heavy. I’m not blaming the ground at all yesterday, I’m only saying thank God we didn’t run him at Sandown (in the Tingle Creek Chase in early December).”

Henderson also suffered a surprise reverse at Kempton on Boxing Day when reigning champion hurdler Epatante was beaten by Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle.

The Seven Barrows handler suspects there was a reason for her below-par run too, but believes both she and Altior are capable of making amends when their issues are resolved.

He added: “I don’t think it’s the same (problem with Epatante) – I think something else will come up there, and I’ve got ideas. That wasn’t her, and we know it wasn’t her. (Whether she was in season) is being investigated.

“I’d be surprised if Epatante ran again before Cheltenham – she didn’t last year, and I see no reason to run her again.

“I’m perfectly happy with both these horses that I’ve got good grounds for thinking there are reasons behind this – and with a bit of luck and a following wind, we can get them back into action.”

Silver Streak shocks Epatante in Christmas Hurdle

Silver Streak upset odds-on favourite Epatante to spring a shock with an all-the-way win in the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

Jockey Adam Wedge employed a significant change of tactics on Evan Williams’ grey, and Silver Streak rose to the challenge – jumping accurately and running the finish out of this year’s Champion Hurdle heroine, who was sent off the 1-5 favourite but had to settle for second.

Epatante made one untimely error, at the third-last, as Aidan Coleman asked her to close down the winner – and although she managed to move within striking distance early in the straight, Silver Streak had plenty in reserve and surged clear again after the last to win by six and a half lengths.

The 13-2 victory was his first at Grade One level and recompense for misfortune at Newcastle in last month’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle, when he was carried out at the second flight by a loose Not So Sleepy, before Epatante won with ease there.

Williams, who was not at the Sunbury track, said: “There are lots of horses that people say deserve this and deserve that, but the reality is it is a tough old game and nobody deserves anything really – but that lad today, he is so genuine and because he is so genuine and tough he did deserve it.

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“I was hoping he would be good enough one day, as I kept telling everybody, but to land it like he did does mean an awful lot to us really.

“The ground is a huge thing and I can’t overemphasise that. He has been running some very good races in defeat on ground which isn’t what he wants, but he goes out there and does his best on it, even though he is not getting the purchase he needs.

Adam Wdge powers to victory aboard Silver Streak
Adam Wedge powers to victory aboard Silver Streak (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“I said to Adam, who was riding here after schooling on Christmas Eve, that I want to make the running in the Christmas Hurdle. I said I don’t want to be second or third in a Christmas Hurdle, that means nothing to me. We either go a good gallop and finish last or we roll the dice and get something out of it.

“I had no ambition to be second or third in a Christmas Hurdle, I wanted to win one – and the only way I could see that was to ride him and go a very good gallop. I would say the jockey has played a blinder. I do think he is a Kempton horse, and if you look at his form around Kempton it is outstanding.

“Let’s not worry about the Cheltenham Festival or let’s not worry about anything else. He has won a Christmas Hurdle, and if that is all we ever do and win a Grade One Christmas Hurdle with him then I’m a very proud man.”

Nicky Henderson, meanwhile, will regroup with Epatante.

The Seven Barrows trainer said after saddling the winner of the closing race on the card: “I’ve had a chat with Aidan. She scoped clean, her heart is clean and she blew for 20 minutes which is spot-on normal. Twenty minutes is right, 15 minutes you’ve done nothing and 25 minutes you are not fit.

“Aidan said he wasn’t getting the same feel he did off her at Newcastle. I don’t think that was the ground – it was just one of those things that happened. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with her.

“She has been really well in herself, and her preparation has been completely perfect – for me anyway. We all thought everything was 100 per cent. Aidan just felt he wasn’t going well enough, because she is the sort of horse you can just ride along on the bridle and press the button and she goes.

“It just didn’t happen, and Aidan said it didn’t feel likely to happen. I’d say we will leave her until Cheltenham. There is something lurking there, but at the moment we only have a limited amount of tests. That wasn’t the Epatante we love on the day, but they are not machines.

“Whatever you do, you sometimes can’t explain these things. Aidan knows her well and he said he wasn’t getting the vibes.”

Coleman said: “The winner deserved to win. The race went to plan, but just from turning in that burst of speed she has wasn’t there for some reason. She will be back. That made no difference (the mistake down the back).”

Epatante bidding to show champion class in Christmas Hurdle defence

All eyes will be on Epatante as the brilliant mare seeks to defend her crown in the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.

The Champion Hurdle heroine returned to action with a stylish success in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle and will be all the rage to capture the two-mile Grade One prize for the second year running.

But Nicky Henderson, who is also represented by Floressa, feels her latest assignment should not be seen as merely a penalty kick.

Henderson said: “We’re going to take the same route as last season – she almost certainly won’t run again before Cheltenham.

“She’s got to come through this test first. It will test the horse and it’s testing times for us – there’s a lot at stake.

“Only a really good performance will satisfy the pundits. If it’s not tip-top, it won’t be satisfactory, but there’s a lot more to it than just going round, I assure you.

“The criteria for these really good two-mile hurdlers is their jumping – it’s how they cross a hurdle and how quickly they get from A to B.”

Silver Streak will attempt to go one better place than 12 months ago in the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle at Kempton (Alan Crowhurst/PA)
Silver Streak will attempt to go one better place than 12 months ago in the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle at Kempton (Alan Crowhurst/PA)
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Evan Williams is under no illusion that last year’s runner-up Silver Streak faces a tall order in reversing the placings, but with ground conditions set to suit he remains optimistic of a big run.

“The reason Silver Streak does so well is that he battles and toughs it out against whatever he’s up against,” said the Welsh trainer.

“It would be nice one day to get his ground (in a Grade One) – and I think it could be OK on Saturday. The negative is obviously the filly is very, very talented and will be very difficult to beat. But he might get there one day, because of his attitude. He’s got the most remarkable attitude.”

Since making a winning return at Kempton in a Listed event, Silver Streak has been carried out in the Fighting Fifth before being denied a first Grade Two success in a photo for the International Hurdle at Cheltenham.

He added on call hosted by Great British Racing: “What happened at Newcastle, there are days you come back from the races upset and irritated – but those things happen. That wasn’t anybody’s fault, that was just racing.

“We were beaten fair and square (in the International) – Tom’s (Symonds) horse (Song For Someone) gave us weight, and the hurdles being out was the same for everybody in the race.

“If the hurdles had been in, Tom’s horse would probably have beaten us further because his horse is a good jumper.”

Sam Twiston-Davies expects Ballyandy to run another solid race at Kempton (Julian Herbert/PA)
Sam Twiston-Davies expects Ballyandy to run another solid race at Kempton (Julian Herbert/PA)

Sam Twiston-Davies hopes last year’s third Ballyandy, trained by his father, Nigel, can reach the frame once again having been placed in all three of his starts this season.

The Grade One-winning rider, who is an ambassador for William Hill, said: “I’m really looking forward to riding him. He has been an absolute star for us this season.

“Epatante will be very hard to beat, but at the same time he has run some very consistent races.

“We know that Kempton is probably not his ideal track and we will be looking forward to getting some heavy ground in the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock, but there is a lot of prize-money on offer

“It is a pleasure to have these sort of horses in the yard and if he was to go and win it would be lovely.”

Diego Du Charmil has plenty to find on official ratings, but trainer Paul Nicholls is optimistic he could sneak into a place.

He said: “We’re only playing for places as Epatante is a certainty if she turns up and runs her best race.

“It’s hard for Diego wherever he goes. He kept getting stuffed by Altior over fences, so there’s no point taking him on.

“We’ll run in the hurdle race and see if we can pick up some crumbs.”

Epatante headlines Christmas Hurdle field

Epatante will face four rivals as she bids to join an elite band of dual Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle winners at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Nicky Henderson’s brilliant mare took this prize in 2019 on her way to landing the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March.

The six-year-old made a successful reappearance in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle last month and now goes for back-to-back victories – a feat achieved by such stars as Binocular and Faugheen.

Among the opposition are Evan Williams’ Silver Streak and the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Ballyandy, who filled the places in this race 12 months ago.

Henderson has also declared Newbury winner Floressa, while Paul Nicholls’ Diego Du Charmil completes the quintet. Goshen and Sceau Royal were the two withdrawals at the final declaration stage.

Grade One-winning hurdler If The Cap Fits is among a field of seven declared for the Ladbrokes Kauto Star Novices’ Chase.

The Harry Fry-trained eight-year-old won his first race over fences but was beaten at odds-on by Pym on his only other subsequent start.

The Big Breakaway also has to bounce back from a surprise reverse at Exeter, although that was over an inadequate trip. Colin Tizzard’s charge will be more at home on his return to three miles, having impressed on his chasing debut at Chepstow.

The Dan Skelton-trained Shan Blue has looked a bright prospect with two wins at Wetherby.

Nicholls, who trained the mighty Kauto Star, relies on Enrilo to give him a fifth victory in the three-mile contest. Golan Fortune, Kalooki and One For The Team are the other contenders.

Epatante all set to defend Christmas crown

Epatante will face a maximum of six rivals when she bids for back-to-back victories in the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

The JP McManus-owned six-year-old provided trainer Nicky Henderson with a ninth victory in the Boxing Day Grade One last season, before going on to claim Champion Hurdle glory at the Cheltenham Festival on her next appearance.

She looked as good as ever when making a successful start to the new campaign in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle last month, and Henderson reports his star firmly on course for her latest assignment.

“The Fighting Fifth was a fairly unsatisfactory race, with Not So Sleepy causing carnage at the first,” said the Seven Barrows handler.

“This was always the route we were going to take. Touch wood, things have gone well since Newcastle – she had her medical check this morning, and everything was fine.

“Her work has been good, and she’s all set to go.”

Epatante could renew rivalry with Alan King’s Fighting Fifth runner-up Sceau Royal, who has since finished fourth in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham.

The Evan Williams-trained Silver Streak was best of the rest in last year’s Christmas Hurdle. The grey was carried out by Not So Sleepy in the Fighting Fifth, before being beaten a nose by Song For Someone in the International.

Goshen could bid to bounce back
Goshen could bid to bounce back (Simon Cooper/PA)

Gary Moore’s Goshen was found to be suffering from a heart problem after a disappointing effort in the International, but he may make a relatively swift return to action.

Henderson’s apparent second string Floressa, the Paul Nicholls-trained Diego Du Charmil and Ballyandy from Nigel Twiston-Davies’ yard complete the potential field.

Grade One honours are also up for grabs in the Ladbrokes Kauto Star Novices’ Chase, for which nine horses have been entered.

Nicholls is set to saddle Enrilo – with Colin Tizzard’s The Big Breakaway, Harry Fry’s If The Cap Fits and Dan Skelton’s Shan Blue among his likely opponents.

Altior on target for Kempton reappearance

Nicky Henderson has confirmed Altior on course to run in the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas.

The Seven Barrows handler withdrew the dual Queen Mother Champion Chase from the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown at the 11th hour earlier this month, as he felt the ground was too testing with the rest of the season in mind.

He had to defend his decision at the time and reinforced his conviction when pointing Altior to Kempton on December 27.

“He’s been great and we’ve been delighted the way things are going,” Henderson said.

“Everybody has been saying ‘are you’re going to run him on soft ground at Kempton?’.

“Kempton soft ground and Sandown soft ground are two different things altogether. There are lots of different types of soft. This is about getting a clear run and lots of things can go wrong.

“Last year he got a splint three or four days before Cheltenham. Anything can happen, anything can jump out and bite you at the last minute.”

Henderson reports Altior to be in tip-top shape for his first race since he took the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February.

He told Unibet: “We put a little clip of him schooling out the other day. Nico (de Boinville) sets off and I shut my eyes, it is terrifying. He is just so quick and fast, and he just comes up miles away. Very few horses have got the scope to do what he can do.

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“It’s terrifying because he’s just so quick and fast. And just comes up miles away. Very few horses have got the scope to do what he does.”

Shishkin is already been hailed as a potential successor to Altior and he took could go to Kempton for the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase on the same card.

Shishkin saunters over an obstacle as he made a winning debut over fences at Kempton
Shishkin saunters over an obstacle as he made a winning debut over fences at Kempton (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner made a successful debut over fences at the Sunbury Park track last month.

“You could not do anything other than give him 10 out of 10 for his first run over fences at Kempton,” said Henderson.

“I do not think he had a whole heap to beat. Not surprisingly, he jumped to the front after about three fences and it was a solo spin. It is going to be a different ball game up against talented opposition, but he has won a Supreme Hurdle under some extraordinary circumstances.

“He is a very talented horse and his jumping at Kempton was exemplary. We thought we would go back to Kempton for the Wayward Lad and then he would have one more run (before the Cheltenham Festival) in the Kingmaker or something like that.

“Him and Altior both won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and they both started their chasing careers with bloodless victories at Kempton, in the same race.

“It is possible that he could be another very high-class two-miler. If that is the case we are very lucky, because we had Sprinter Sacre and then Altior to take over. You would be lucky to see one horse as good as those two,  if there is a third one then we are desperately lucky.”

Epatante is to have her last run before her defence of her Cheltenham crown in the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day.

The six-year-old mare, owned by JP McManus took the Kempton Grade One on her way to winning the Unibet Champion Hurdle in March.

She has already shown her well-being this term when lifting the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.

“You are always nervous ahead of their seasonal reappearance. It (Fighting Fifth Hurdle) was a mess of a race, but Sceau Royal is a good marker,” said Henderson.

Trainer Nicky Henderson
Trainer Nicky Henderson (Bradley Collyer/PA)

“Daryl (Jacob, rider of Sceau Royal) said he couldn’t believe a horse could go past him going that fast, because he wasn’t stopping.

“Aidan (Coleman) gave her a beautiful ride, but there is a button and you just pray it is going to work every time you press it. She is extraordinary, that change of gear is electric.

“She goes along as if she is doing nothing, she is so slick. The way she crosses a hurdle is a bit scary. It’s a bit like Buveur D’Air, it is A to B like an arrow. It is just so economic.

“She will go straight to the Unibet Champion Hurdle (after the Christmas Hurdle). As it worked last year, I see no reason why not to put her away until Cheltenham.”

Henderson also intends to run Floressa, with her owners keen to take the plunge.

The five-year-old mate won the race formerly known as the Gerry Fielden at Newbury as Epatante had done 12 months earlier.

“The team that owns Floressa, being an exuberant bunch, have managed to persuade me to run her in the Christmas Hurdle,” he said.

“I said she wants two and a half miles and running in the Gerry Fielden was stupid, I thought Marie’s Rock would win that and they were mad.

“Now they are crowing and they have got their programme book, and I haven’t got mine any more, it is totally up to them.

“Even they know Floressa isn’t going to win the Christmas Hurdle, but there is Grade One black type in there for placed horses, so it could be a very valuable asset to her CV.”

Epatante secures comfortable win in dramatic Fighting Fifth Hurdle

Epatante impressed when making a winning seasonal debut in a dramatic renewal of the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.

Last season’s Champion Hurdle heroine swept to victory over Sceau Royal, taking trainer Nicky Henderson’s record tally in the race to six.

However, chaos reigned in the early stages of the Grade One contest, thanks to the antics of Not So Sleepy.

Hughie Morrison’s enigmatic performer led from the start, but was not keen on co-operating and deposited jockey Paddy Brennan on the jumping side of the first hurdle.

If that was not enough, he ran loose and went to avoid the second flight and, in doing so, took Silver Streak out of the contest.

That left Sceau Royal at the front of the four remaining horses and Alan King’s charge led to the final flight, but Aidan Coleman was sitting pretty on Epatante.

The 8-11 favourite cleared the last and soared past Sceau Royal on the run to the line to win by four and a quarter lengths.

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Henderson, speaking at Newbury, said: “It is a relief as much as anything. It shows there was no fluke about everything she did last season. I thought she was great.

“She is a proper hurdler – just quick, fast and slick. The great thing about her is she will go to sleep and you can press a button.

“She will go to the Christmas Hurdle almost certainly. That’s why this fits in better than the International (Hurdle at Cheltenham next month). I was delighted to see her do that and the gears worked.

“It was a messy race, Sceau Royal is not a bad horse and you could not ask for more. He (Sceau Royal) had race fitness, but he is a good horse. From our point of view, it was ideal. She will come on for it, but she has been here (Newbury) for a racecourse gallop and that brings her into Christmas nicely.

“I don’t think she has done anything at home that tells me she is better than last year. She has just been in good form all the way through and had a trouble-free run.

“She had a super summer and came in looking fantastic from Martinstown (owner JP McManus’ stud) which makes my job easier. It is just nice to see something quicken up like that.

“Even last year there was a question of does she go round Cheltenham as she goes round Flat tracks and has speed, but she has proven she can do it round Cheltenham.”

Coleman was impressed with Epatante’s performance in what was an eventful race.

He said: “Fair play to Sceau Royal, he must be a very genuine horse because Not So Sleepy was causing havoc.

“It was a very strange race after we’d jumped two hurdles given what happened and I feel sorry for poor old Silver Streak.

“Epatante was very professional, she won really well and I was delighted with her, she was very good.

“She showed plenty of speed, but she was a short-priced favourite and a Champion Hurdle winner, so she was entitled to do that to be fair. I was very happy – and very happy to get back on her.”

Sceau Royal’s rider Daryl Jacob was pleased with his mount and said: “He ran a super race, considering what happened early on, I’m delighted with him.”

Trainer Evan Williams said of the early incident which took out Silver Streak: “That’s life. The jockey’s fine and the horse is fine, which is all that matters.”

Sponsors Betfair refunded all bets on Not So Sleepy and Silver Streak and then cut Epatante to 2-1 favourite from 3-1 to defend her crown in March.

Epatante ‘up and ready’ for Fighting Fifth return

Nicky Henderson reports Epatante ready to start her road back to Cheltenham when she makes her seasonal debut in the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.

The six-year-old mare enjoyed a stellar last campaign which ended with her winning the Champion Hurdle.

Expectations are high, and the Fighting Fifth has been a successful race for Henderson – with a record five victories already in the bag.

“She’s got a lot of pace, and I think she’ll need it,” said Henderson.

“Hughie Morrison’s horse (Not So Sleepy) goes a right good gallop, so we know there’ll be no hanging around.

“There’ll be no hiding, but luckily she’s done plenty of work – they’ll go a really good pace, and I think we’re up and ready for it.

“It’s been a good race to us, with the exception of last year, that was not a good expedition when Buveur D’Air got an amazing piece of hurdle wedged under his foot, right under the hoof.”

Reflecting on Epatante’s meteoric rise last season, the Seven Barrows trainer said: “She was very, very impressive in the Gerry Feilden, but that was a handicap off 137. It was JP’s (McManus, owner) idea, he said ‘let’s go to the Christmas Hurdle’ – which was a huge jump up from an intermediate hurdle straight into a Grade One, but again that was a very good call.

“She was very impressive there, and we didn’t run her again before the Champion Hurdle, and obviously we didn’t run her again afterwards because that was the end of the season (because of the coronavirus pandemic).

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“She’d done nothing wrong at all, she was very impressive both times.”

Asked about prospects for the defence of her Cheltenham crown, Henderson said: “I think there are plenty of pretenders, there always are. I suspect our route will be the same – I like the Fighting Fifth in that it brings you nicely into the Christmas Hurdle.

“It would be the same timetable as last year, in that she started at this time of year and then you come into Christmas. If all went well we wouldn’t run her again before the Champion Hurdle.

“Hopefully some time after Christmas, Buveur D’Air slots into the equation.”

Sceau Royal (left) takes on Epatante at Newcastle
Sceau Royal (left) takes on Epatante at Newcastle (David Davies/PA)

Sceau Royal was fourth on his only other previous run in this race four years but has a belated second attempt on the back of two convincing wins on his switch back to hurdling.

His performances in the Welsh Champion Hurdle and the Elite Hurdle have shown Alan King’s eight-year-old to still be a very smart performer over the smaller obstacles, after a long spell chasing.

”Sceau Royal has thrived since his wind operation, winning the Welsh Champion and the Elite Hurdle,” the Barbury Castle handler told www.alankingracing.co.uk.

“He’s staying over hurdles for the time being and has earned the right to have another crack at a race in which he finished fourth back in 2016.

Alan King is looking forward to running Sceau Royal in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle
Alan King is looking forward to running Sceau Royal in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle (David Davies/PA)

“Sceau Royal is in good order and worked very pleasingly on Saturday – and as it looks as though he should get the decent ground that suits him, we are all looking forward to the clash with Epatante.

“He could still possibly switch back to chasing in the spring. But he’s doing all right over hurdles at the moment, and the two-mile chase division looks pretty strong at present.”

Evan Williams is happy to let Silver Streak have a second crack at this prize, after he took third place behind Cornerstone Lad and Buveur D’Air 12 months ago.

Like last year, Silver Streak heads to the north-east after winning a Listed hurdle at Kempton.

“It’s just a joy to go up there with him. He’s a smashing horse and has been very good to us,” said the Llancarfan trainer.

“We’ll go there and give it our best shot, but the mare (Epatante) does looks exceptional.

“He deserves to go there, but to win those races is very tough indeed.”

It is 17 years since The French Furze took the Grade One honours for Nicky Richards, and the Greystoke handler is looking forward to giving Ribble Valley this big test after his pleasing success at Carlisle five weeks ago on his first start since disappointing at Ascot last December.

“He’s fine. Everything has gone well since Carlisle, and we’re very happy with him,” he told Sky Sports Racing.

“He seems to have a great cruising speed and finished off with a little kick at the end. He did it very well.

“At Ascot he did not settle at all in the first part of the race – I think that was more his undoing than anything. Anyway, that’s behind us and hopefully it’s onwards and upwards now.

“Tomorrow we’ll find out a bit more. I’ll be disappointed if it isn’t a good end-to-end gallop. We’ve always thought that would suit him ideally, and the track should suit him lovely.

“It’s going to be very interesting.”

An intriguing line-up is completed by last year’s surprise winner Cornerstone Lad, Not So Sleepy and Voix Du Reve.

Six take on Epatante in Fighting Fifth

Nicky Henderson’s Champion Hurdle winner Epatante will face six rivals when she gets her new season under way in the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.

Saturday’s race is one Henderson regularly uses as a starting point for his best two-mile hurdler, with My Tent Or Yours and Buveur D’Air (twice) winning in recent years.

However, Buveur D’Air was beaten in the race 12 months ago when bidding for a hat-trick – during which he picked up an injury which has sidelined him ever since.

The beneficiary 12 months ago was Cornerstone Lad, trained by Micky Hammond – and he is back to defend his title, having won on the Flat last time out.

According to the sponsors, Epatante’s main rival is Alan King’s Sceau Royal – who arrives at the top of his game, having won the Welsh Champion Hurdle and the Elite at Wincanton already this season.

Also a useful chaser, Sceau Royal will love the prevailing good ground.

Evan Williams’ Silver Streak is another who arrives with the advantage of race-fitness over the favourite, having won a Listed event at Kempton last month for the second successive year.

Heading into Grade One company for the first time is Nicky Richards’ Ribble Valley. Always highly thought of, he oozed class when winning at Carlisle on his return.

Hughie Morrison’s Not So Sleepy is a smart dual-purpose performer, adding more strength in depth, while Iain Jardine’s Voix Du Reve completes the field.

Coleman eager to resume Epatante connection in Fighting Fifth

Aidan Coleman is excited to renew his partnership with Epatante in the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle this weekend.

The 32-year-old has been called up to ride last season’s Champion Hurdle winner in the Grade One prize after her regular rider, Barry Geraghty, announced his retirement from the saddle over the summer.

Having scored aboard the Nicky Henderson-trained six-year-old on her return 12 months ago in the Gerry Feilden at Newbury, Coleman hopes the pair can achieve the same result on Saturday.

Coleman said: “It was great to have had the privilege of riding her once last season and sending her on her way. Now Barry Geraghty is retired, it is great to get back on her.

“I’ve ridden out for Nicky for a couple of years now and we’ve had plenty of winners together, but I’ve not had a lot of rides as Nicky has got his jockeys.

“I’m on the team sheet somewhere there and I get the call up every now and then.

“It’s great to ride for a trainer of his calibre and it is great to get the ride. I feel very privileged.”

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Epatante had plenty to prove on her comeback last year, having been a beaten favourite in the Grade Two mares’ novices’ hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but Coleman was confident she had the ability to climb the ranks.

He said: “I think we all thought she could go to the next level. If you rewind it six months back before that, she was nearly a banker for the Cheltenham Festival and whatever happened that day, she didn’t run her race.

“If she had run her race that day, there was no way she would have been lining up in the Gerry Feilden, but these things happen in racing.

“When she won the Gerry Feilden, she won that well and it still looked like she was progressing. It was no surprise to see her do what she did.”

Altior ridden by jockey Nico de Boinville (right) and Epatante ridden by Jerry McGrath during a recent racecourse gallop at Newbury (Andrew Matthews/PA Images)
Altior ridden by jockey Nico de Boinville (right) and Epatante ridden by Jerry McGrath during a recent racecourse gallop at Newbury (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Despite Epatante being one of the lowest-rated winners of the Champion Hurdle in the past 10 years, Coleman, who finished down the field in the race on Gumball, believes that should not take anything away from the victory.

He said: “Gumball is a front-runner a lot of the time and he was content to sit there, so the speed was on.

“It didn’t ride like a sub-standard Champion Hurdle by any means. There are vintage Champion Hurdles and good Champion Hurdles and time will tell what is what.

“There is no such thing as a bad one, I can guarantee you that.”

Not So Sleepy, who Aidan Coleman hopes will line up in opposition to Epatante (Julian Herbert/PA Images)
Not So Sleepy, who Aidan Coleman hopes will line up in opposition to Epatante (Julian Herbert/PA)

Assessing the potential opposition Epatante could face at the weekend, Coleman hopes the Hughie Morrison-trained Not So Sleepy takes up his engagement to ensure the race is run at a true pace.

He added: “It looks like it will be a competitive enough race, with the likes of Silver Streak and last year’s winner Cornerstone Lad in there.

“With Not So Sleepy in there, it looks like there could be a bit of pace. Hopefully it will be a true-run race and the best horse will win.”

Twenty-four hours earlier, Coleman will bid to claim back-to-back victories aboard Paisley Park in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.

The Emma Lavelle-trained eight-year-old will be making his first start since suffering an odds-on defeat when attempting to defend his Stayers’ Hurdle crown at the Festival.

Coleman said: “He looks and feels great at home. I schooled him last week and he seems really up for it.

“It is great to see him back. It will be great to see him have a better experience than he did at Cheltenham and what will be will be after that.”

With Paisley Park subsequently found to have an irregular heartbeat after his latest defeat, Coleman is keeping his fingers crossed the issue was a one-off.

He said: “Cheltenham didn’t go to plan, which is a shame, but these things happen when you are dealing with animals.

“He didn’t have a good time in the Stayers’ and we don’t want that to have an impact on his career going forwards.

“I just hope he has a good time and runs well and gives us something to go forward on – whether that is winning or running well in defeat.”

Epatante raring to go in Fighting Fifth

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 and Epatante on their way to victory at Newbury last season
Aidan Coleman and Epatante on their way to victory at Newbury last season (Nigel French/PA)
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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.

Buveur D'Air is on the comeback trail
Buveur D’Air is on the comeback trail (PA)

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.

Epatante headlines Fighting Fifth field

Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante will face a maximum of nine rivals in the Betfair Fighting Fifth at Newcastle on Saturday.

The JP McManus-owned mare provided trainer Nicky Henderson with a record eighth victory in the two-mile showpiece on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival in March.

She will be the hot favourite to make a successful return to action in a race Henderson has won five times in all, including twice in the last three years with Buveur D’Air.

The Seven Barrows handler has also left in Marie’s Rock, although she is expected to take up an alternative engagement in the Ladbrokes Gerry Feilden Intermediate Handicap Hurdle at Newbury on the same afternoon.

Cornerstone Lad, who inflicted a shock defeat on Buveur D’Air in last year’s Fighting Fifth, is 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.

Coleman to reunite with Epatante in Fighting Fifth

Aidan Coleman is set to be reunited with Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante when she makes her seasonal reappearance in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle on Saturday week.

The JP McManus-owned mare provided trainer Nicky Henderson with a record eighth victory in the two-mile showpiece on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival in March under the now-retired Barry Geraghty.

Epatante enjoyed a racecourse spin with esteemed stable companion Altior during the Ladbrokes Winter Carnival Gallops Morning at Newbury on Tuesday – finishing full of running in the hands of Jerry McGrath, while Nico de Boinville pushed Henderson’s dual Champion Chase winner out to the line.

With Henderson’s stable jockey De Boinville set to be back in Berkshire for the Ladbrokes Trophy meeting, Coleman is in line to partner Epatante at Gosforth Park on the same day, having steered her to win the race formerly known as the Gerry Feilden at Newbury 12 months ago.

“Aidan Coleman will ride Epatante at Newcastle. It’s part of the plan, because Nico will be here,” said Henderson.

“Aidan was due to be here this morning, but unfortunately we were told yesterday that jockeys couldn’t ride at a race meeting and here.

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“JP has got a lot of horses, and Aidan is going to be riding a few of them – there is no particular retained jockey in this country.

“He won the Gerry Feilden on her last year, so he has ridden her before.”

Marie's Rock (left) worked with Floressa at Newbury
Marie’s Rock (left) worked with Floressa at Newbury (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Another high-class mare from Seven Barrows to strut her stuff at Newbury was Marie’s Rock, who worked alongside Floressa.

Marie’s Rock is unbeaten in three starts and is pencilled in to make her first competitive appearance since last December in the race won by Epatante at Newbury last season.

Henderson added: “She is definitely on target for the Gerry Feilden.

“It is interesting to think that Epatante came here for that last year rated 137 and Marie’s Rock is 141, so she is technically a better filly at this moment than Epatante was this time last year, but I wouldn’t read too much into that!

“I do think Marie’s Rock is a good filly. She was unbeaten, then unfortunately she had a problem just a fortnight before Cheltenham where she was heading to the mares’ novices’ hurdle – we fancied her quite a lot.

“I think she is a very smart. She had a good gallop this morning and will be ready for the Gerry Feilden.”

Henderson also issued a positive update on the well-being of dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D’Air.

The nine-year-old has been off the track since suffering a well documented foot injury in last year’s Fighting Fifth, but is reported to be making excellent progress.

“Don’t forget we have Buveur D’Air, who is in very good form. I can’t tell you where he is going to go but he is doing a lot of work and he is very well,” said Henderson.

“Hopefully he and Epatante will meet in March. In my absence, he went a mile and a quarter up the grass at home this morning. He is still cantering – he has not started fast work yet, but touch wood, it’s all going to plan.

“He wouldn’t be ready for the Christmas Hurdle. To be honest with you, even if you went for the Contenders Hurdle (at Sandown in February) and then to Cheltenham, you would have settled for that at the start of the season, but we appear to be miles ahead of that schedule.

“His foot has grown over. He seems in tremendous form, but it was a horrific injury.

“Everybody has done a brilliant job, and to get him back is a dream.”

Epatante tops 17 contenders for Fighting Fifth crown

Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante features among 17 entries for the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on November 28.

The Nicky Henderson-trained mare will be aiming to give trainer Nicky Henderson a sixth victory in the Grade One contest – with previous winners for Seven Barrows including two fellow Champion Hurdle scorers in Punjabi (2008) and Buveur D’Air (2017 and 2018).

Henderson has also entered Marie’s Rock, the winner of a bumper and two hurdle races from as many starts.

Micky Hammond’s Cornerstone Lad caused a 16-1 surprise 12 months ago when he edged out Buveur D’Air – who it transpired had suffered a nasty injury during the race – and Silver Streak (Evan Williams) in a thrilling finish.

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Cornerstone Lad has had two starts on the Flat in preparation for his title defence, most recently making all to win a 14-furlong handicap at Redcar.

Five horses have won back-to-back runnings of the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, with Buveur D’Air the first to do so since Dato Star (1998 and 1999).

Hammond said of his six-year-old: “Cornerstone Lad is in great form and firmly on course for the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle.

“It was fantastic to win the race last year and it gave us one of the biggest days in my training career.

“After the Fighting Fifth, we are strongly considering going over fences with him. That is something we will discuss more after the Fighting Fifth, but that is currently the way we are leaning.

“He had a lovely summer out in the paddocks and then came back and has already had two spins on the Flat.”

He added: “He ran really well at Redcar in October to be fourth and then I was delighted with his latest effort earlier this month. Those two runs have left him spot on for the Fighting Fifth and he is primed to go.

“We are aware that he will be taking on more top-class opposition, but it is lovely to have a horse like him in the yard and we are looking forward to trying to defend his crown.”

Gary Moore has given Goshen an entry, while Abacadabras (Gordon Elliott) and Jason The Militant (Henry de Bromhead) are among three Irish-trained possibles.

Elite Hurdle winner Sceau Royal has the option for Alan King, with the well-regarded Ribble Valley in the mix for Nicky Richards.