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Honeysuckle and Epatante promise Champion Hurdle to savour

Honeysuckle bids to dethrone Epatante in a mouthwatering clash for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

The market for the feature event on day one of the Festival is dominated by the two top-class mares, with Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle just about edging favouritism off the back of a scintillating display in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

That dominant victory saw the seven-year-old stretch her unbeaten record to double figures, leaving connections with a mixture of expectant nerves and excitement for her biggest assignment yet.

CheHoneysuckle at Cheltenham on Sunday morningltenham Festival Gallops – March 14th
Honeysuckle at Cheltenham on Sunday morning (David Davies/PA)

Peter Molony, racing manager for Honeysuckle’s owner Kenny Alexander, said: “She arrived in Cheltenham on Saturday night and travelled well, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

“I do get desperately nervous, but if you’re not pumped up for this you’re not going to get pumped up for anything.

“She’s an amazing mare, and we’re very lucky to be in this position, so we may as well enjoy it.”

Honeysuckle already has a Festival win on her CV, having outgunned Benie Des Dieux in an epic Mares’ Hurdle 12 months ago.

The daughter of Sulamani was made to pull out all the stops when successfully defending her crown in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse on her first start of the current campaign, but raised her game significantly when powering clear of her Irish Champion rivals.

“She was incredible in Leopardstown,” added Molony.

“It’s well documented Henry didn’t have her fit enough for her first run of the season in the Hatton’s Grace – she blew up for the first time in her life in a race.

“Henry mentioned the other day that he thinks she’s still improving. If that is right, and we can get her there at the best of her ability on Tuesday, it will be very exciting.”

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A huge part of the Honeysuckle story is jockey Rachael Blackmore, who bids to become the first female jockey in history to ride a Champion Hurdle winner.

Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore have formed a formidable partnership
Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore have formed a formidable partnership (PA)

Molony has nothing but praise for the rider, saying: “It sounds a funny thing to say, but it’s almost like people have forgotten she’s a woman at this stage – she can hold her own with any man.

“She’s so balanced, and horses run so well for her and jump so well for her, and she’s got a fantastic tactical brain.

“She’s got all the attributes – she’s fantastic.”

Honeysuckle produced many of her best performance over longer distances, so De Bromhead was thrilled to see her prove she can be just as effective over two miles last time out.

The Knockeen-based trainer, who also saddles Aspire Tower, said: “She looks very effective over anything really. All the judges say her last day was her best performance so far.

“Aspire Tower ran really well to finish second at Leopardstown at Christmas, and we decided to go straight to the Champion Hurdle.

“I’m very happy with him. He’s in great form, and we’ve put him away for Cheltenham.”

Epatante provided trainer Nicky Henderson with his eighth Champion Hurdle success last season – and owner JP McManus with his ninth.

She looked as good as ever on her seasonal reappearance in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in November, but returns to the Cotswolds with something to prove after suffering a shock defeat when bidding for back-to-back wins in Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Nicky Henderson with Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante
Nicky Henderson with Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante (David Davies/PA)

Henderson said: “She as very impressive in the Fighting Fifth. She picked up Sceau Royal after the last and went past him with so much class.

“She wasn’t herself at Kempton – but fair play to Silver Streak, who was very good on the day. He set a proper test, and at no stage were we in a position to have a crack at him.

“I think we’re back in the right place now.”

The Evan Williams-trained Silver Streak is once again in opposition, having finished third and sixth in the last two Champion Hurdles, but the biggest threat to the two mares could be Gary Moore’s Goshen.

The five-year-old was set for a wide-margin win in the Triumph Hurdle at last year’s Festival before his agonising exit at the final obstacle.

He was then beaten twice on the Flat in the autumn, and finished stone last in Cheltenham’s International Hurdle in December, but bounced back with a wide-margin success in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton on his latest outing.

Moore said: “He seems in good order. I’m very happy with him. He’s done everything right this morning (Monday), so it’s all systems go.

“There will be loads of pace. He doesn’t have to make the running. They can do that for him if they want. It’s down to Jamie (Moore).

“We’re 100 per cent ready to go.”

Willie Mullins runs last year’s runner-up Sharjah, as well as Saldier and intriguing French recruit James Du Berlais.

The former has 19 lengths to make up on Honeysuckle on their meeting in the Irish Champion, a race he also disappointed in last season before raising his game at Cheltenham.

Sharjah needs to bounce back to form
Sharjah needs to bounce back to form (PA)

Mullins said: “I don’t know what it is about the Irish Champion Hurdle with Sharjah – it maybe comes too soon for him after Christmas.

“The better the ground the better his chance, and if we can just adjust tactics this year it might make the difference.”

Of James Du Berlais, he added: “He had a very busy season in France last year, and was bought by Simon (Munir) and Isaac (Souede) as a novice chaser – but it’s a long time to wait, so we put him in training.

“I was happy to run him somewhere and I’m not going to run him in the Stayers’ Hurdle. I said ‘let’s run him in the Champion Hurdle and let him have a go there’, rather than do nothing the whole spring.”

Denise Foster’s Abacadabras and the Hughie Morrison-trained Not So Sleepy are the other hopefuls.

Honeysuckle and Epatante to square up in Champion Hurdle

Star mares Epatante and Honeysuckle are among a final field of 10 horses declared for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Nicky Henderson’s Epatante is the defending champion, having provided her trainer with a record eighth victory 12 months ago.

However, the JP McManus-owned seven-year-old will return to the Cotswolds on a recovery mission on Tuesday after suffering a shock defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Epatante is out to claim back-to-back Champion Hurdle wins
Epatante is out to claim back-to-back Champion Hurdle wins (Tim Goode/PA)

Contrastingly, the Henry de Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle will put her unbeaten record on the line under Rachael Blackmore – who is bidding to become the first female rider to claim Champion Hurdle glory.

Honeysuckle produced what is widely regarded as the best performance of her career to date when powering clear in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle and is the marginal favourite to follow up at Cheltenham, where she won the Mares’ Hurdle last season.

Speaking on Racing TV’s Luck on Sunday programme, Honeysuckle’s owner Kenny Alexander said: “I’m pretty pumped up for it! I’d always be pumped up, because I think it’s the best week of the year, but particularly this year – and particularly for the big one on Tuesday.

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Honeysuckle on the gallops at Cheltenham on Sunday morning
Honeysuckle on the gallops at Cheltenham on Sunday morning (David Davies/PA)

“I’m very excited and really looking forward to it – and pretty confident.

“I’m lucky to have a horse as good as that (Honeysuckle) who is going into the Champion Hurdle as favourite. If you can’t enjoy this sort of occasion, you shouldn’t own horses, I don’t think.

“She’s never been beaten, and that obviously fills you with confidence. I think her last run was spectacular, although there were a few horses that didn’t quite run to form and will probably run materially better on Tuesday.

“Henry seems quite confident. He’s always very cautious, but he seems very confident in her.”

Alexander added: “She’s 9-4, so she’s got a 30 per cent chance of winning, (but) that does mean she’s got 70 per cent chance of losing!

“She’s favourite, and I think she should be, but it’s going to be a huge battle to win the race.

“Irrespective of what happens on Tuesday, she’s been a brilliant mare to own – and I’ve been very lucky to have her.

“I think it’s going to be a fantastic Festival – I can’t wait for it really.”

De Bromhead has a second string to his bow in Aspire Tower, while Willie Mullins runs last year’s runner-up Sharjah, as well as Saldier and intriguing French recruit James Du Berlais.

Denise Foster’s Abacadabras completes the Irish challenge.

The home team is headed by Gary Moore’s stable star Goshen, who agonisingly exited at the final flight when set for a wide-margin win in the Triumph Hurdle last year – and got his season back on track with victory in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton recently.

Epatante’s Christmas Hurdle conqueror Silver Streak (Evan Williams) and Not So Sleepy (Hughie Morrison) are the other hopefuls.

Masterful Henderson well-versed in potential Cheltenham pitfalls

For Nicky Henderson, the pressure of having horses at the Cheltenham Festival is not on the day but in the build-up.

His job is to get his team to the four biggest days in the jumps calendar in the best possible shape.

No one knows better than the master of Seven Barrows, who is the most successful UK trainer with 68 winners – the first coming way back in 1985.

He has good chances in four of the main events this year, with past winners Epatante and Buveur D’Air giving him a strong hand in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, Shishkin aiming to join the Seven Barrows trainer’s good record in the Sporting Life Arkle Trophy, Altior trying to regain his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown and Champ and Santini two hopes of giving him a third WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Nicky Henderson with his major Cheltenham Festival runners (left to right) Champ, Altior, Shishkin, Epatante and Santini
Nicky Henderson with his major Cheltenham Festival runners (left to right) Champ, Altior, Shishkin, Epatante and Santini (David Davies/PA)

“The pressure bit is what we’re doing at home. It’s getting them there,” he said.

“It’s not so much what happens on the day, the last few weeks are an uncomfortable time. There are so many things that can go wrong.

“You’ve got to get it absolutely right. There are banana skins everywhere, and that is what we’re all nervous about – things that go wrong with your big boys.

“That puts us under pressure.”

The unpredictable British weather has not made life easy, either.

“The weather has been very variable. We’ve had as wet a winter as you can remember and a complete week of a freeze-up,” he said.

“It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had a few difficult times with the horses themselves. There have been little patches when I haven’t been totally happy, but at the end of the day it’s coming together.

“We’ve had to change our preparations a bit. There was obviously the moving of the Newbury meeting, which changed our plans quite a bit, and we’ve had to improvise quite a lot.

“We’d normally take quite a big squad to Kempton to gallop on the all-weather a fortnight before Cheltenham, but we’ve not been able to do that this year, which has changed our run-up plans.”

Despite the pressures and inevitable mishaps, the Henderson string will be a force to be reckoned with from day one – starting with high hopes in the Arkle and Champion Hurdle.

Nicky Henderson with his Arkle Trophy hope Shishkin
Nicky Henderson with his Arkle Trophy hope Shishkin (David Davies/PA)
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Shishkin bids to join Henderson’s elite band of Arkle Trophy winners which include Remittance Man, Sprinter Sacre and Altior.

His task has been made a little easier with the withdrawal of the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene, although Allmankind still presents a potent threat.

“It’s amazing how this race has gone from about three or four weeks ago, when Shishkin was odds on and everybody said it was going to be boring,” he said.

“I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick. Now there’s a real fight, and people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week. He’s got a real battle on his hands.”

Despite the absence of Energumene, there will still be a formidable battalion of Irish raiders for Henderson and the British team to cope with – a factor he is very mindful of, especially after watching the Dublin Racing Festival, where Mullins in particular was unstoppable.

He said: “They just came up with another blockbuster. You suddenly think ‘crikey, I thought I was going to win that’ and all of a sudden Willie has come up with something and what are we going to do now? We’ve got to do our best, it’s been the same for a few years.

Willie Mullins and Paul Townend will be a big threat to Nicky Henderson's hopes at Cheltenham
Willie Mullins and Paul Townend will be a big threat to Nicky Henderson’s hopes at Cheltenham (Tim Goode/PA)

“That scoreboard that is down at the bottom of the parade ring, when it’s got the English and the Irish flag and the numbers – it’s pretty daunting when the score is 11-5 or something. Then you feel you are fighting a losing battle, but I’m not going into this thinking we’re fighting a losing battle.

“We’ve got a lot of very good chances. We thought Shishkin was a pretty good banker to go into last year, and Altior was always in that situation. Sprinter was always in that situation – you always had something you hoped you could hang your hat on, whatever happened.

“You always say you’ll settle for one, and I mean it more than ever this year, because I think it’s going to be tougher than ever.”

Henderson has won the Champion Hurdle three times in the last four years, with Buveur D’Air (2017 and 2018) and Epatante (2020). The pair represent him again – but both have to come back from defeats.

“Epatante was disappointing at Kempton because she was very good in the Fighting Fifth. She wasn’t herself in the Christmas Hurdle,” he said.

“Obviously, she’s better than that. I think we’re back in the right place now.

“She looks wonderful. If we’ve got her back she’s got as good a chance as any.

“The ground at Haydock found Buveur D’Air out. I thought we were going to get to the winner, but he emptied a bit. He was entitled to get a bit tired after his time off – but it did him good, and he’s in good shape.”

On day two, Altior will attempt to reclaim thr Champion Chase crown he made his own in 2017 and 2018.

“It hasn’t been easy. Having been invincible, it hasn’t gone his way,” said Henderson.

Altior bids to regain his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown
Altior bids to regain his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown (Paul Harding/PA)

“He is 11 now and he’s done very little wrong. One or two things have conspired against him.

Should Altior defy the odds then he would go close to matching the achievement of Sprinter Sacre, who overcame several problems to win a second Champion Chase in 2016 – three years after his first.

“With Sprinter – that was a miracle. I don’t think you could hope for two miracles, but this one would be very special if he could because he’s been a fantastic horse,” said Henderson.

Henderson named Sprinter Sacre’s second Champion Chase triumph as his most memorable day at Cheltenham.

“We’ve been very lucky. We’ve had some great days. You go back to See You Then (with three Champion Hurdle wins in the 1980s). I was wet behind the ears, it was so long ago, but I can remember it,” he said.

“I think you have to say, and a lot of people who were there on the day would say, Sprinter’s comeback in the Champion Chase was the most memorable day of my Cheltenham days … probably any day. It was an extraordinary scene.

Sprinter Sacre gave Nicky Henderson his most special moment at the Cheltenham Festival
Sprinter Sacre gave Nicky Henderson his most special moment at the Cheltenham Festival (Simon Cooper/PA)

“The public welcome and everything was unforgettable. It was very special.”

Long Run (2011) and Bobs Worth (2013) are Henderson’s two Gold Cup winners. He looks to Champ and Santini to give him a third.

Champ’s late surge to land the RSA Insurance Chase last year makes the trainer believe he will stay the distance.

“That was an extraordinary performance,” he said.

“It was sort of reminiscent of dear old Might Bite, where you thought he was out of it and not going to feature and from the second last to the last he was dropping back.

“It looked as though he was going to finish a moderate third jumping the last. I was focusing on those up front, and all of a sudden he came back into sight and swept past them – which proves an important thing, stamina.”

Champ on his way to the gallops at Nicky Henderson’s yard
Champ on his way to the gallops at Nicky Henderson’s yard (David Davies/PA)

Santini was runner-up in 2020 but has to bounce back from defeats in all his three starts of this campaign.

“He’s had a difficult season,” said Henderson, who is saddened there will be no crowds because of Covid-19 restrictions but delighted the meeting is going ahead.

“It’s going to be very strange, because we are going to be sitting or standing and suffering throughout the build-up to the races on our own, with no owners and nobody to talk to and nobody to hold each other’s hands,” he said.

“It’s very sad that we’re not going to have the people there to share it with us – but it’s terrific that we’re racing, and that’s the most important thing.

“Television comes into its own, and we’ll show the world everything we’ve got.”

All set for clash of the titans at Cheltenham

For decades the Cheltenham Festival has been considered the ultimate battleground for British and Irish-trained National Hunt stars – and while it did not look likely for a while, that rivalry will resume in the Cotswolds.

There will be no packed grandstands or Guinness Village overflowing with revellers, but the action on the track promises to be as fiercely competitive as ever, with the Prestbury Cup going to the victors of the Anglo-Irish turf war.

The Prestbury Cup stayed in Britain in the first two years it was contested in 2014 and 2015, but Ireland has triumphed every year since, bar 2019, when the two nations won 14 races each.

Ahead of this year’s meeting, we assess five of the chief hopes for the home team, and five horses likely to ensure Irish eyes are smiling once again:

THE BRITISH

Shishkin – Nicky Henderson – Arkle Trophy

Shishkin is Britain's leading novice chaser
Shishkin is Britain’s leading novice chaser (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Hot on the hooves of Sprinter Sacre and Altior, Shishkin emerged as the latest two-mile superstar on the Seven Barrows conveyer belt when producing a remarkable performance to win last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. While the margin of victory over Abacadabras was small, Henderson’s ace came from a seriously uncompromising position to grab victory, which is testament to both his talent and tenacity. He has made a near-flawless transition to the chasing game this term, with a pair of wins at Kempton and a recent Doncaster domination setting him up perfectly for his Festival return. The withdrawal of Energumene makes Shishkin’s task easier, although it should still be a cracker with Allmankind blazing a trail in front.

Epatante – Nicky Henderson – Champion Hurdle

Epatante was brilliant in last year's Champion Hurdle
Epatante was brilliant in last year’s Champion Hurdle (Tim Goode/PA)

The JP McManus-owned Epatante progressed from high-class handicapper to the best around in the two-mile hurdling division last season, with success in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton followed by a dominant display at Cheltenham. She looked as good as ever when barely coming off the bridle in winning the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle on her reappearance, but blotted her copybook with a lethargic effort when defending her Christmas Hurdle crown. However, Henderson believes he has valid excuses for that defeat and if she can bounce back to her best in the Cotswolds, even the brilliant Irish mare Honeysuckle may be powerless to resist her electric turn of foot.

Royale Pagaille – Venetia Williams – National Hunt Chase

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Royale Pagaille bolts up in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock
Royale Pagaille bolts up in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock (David Davies/PA)

This French recruit failed to beat a single rival home in his first two starts for Venetia Williams and prominent owner Rich Ricci last season, but has seemingly been turned inside out since a summer break. After making a successful start to the current campaign in novice company at Haydock, Royal Pagaille made a mockery of an opening handicap mark of 140 at Kempton over Christmas, and was even more impressive when routing his rivals in Haydock’s Peter Marsh Chase under top-weight in January. On his revised mark of 166, connections would have been fully entitled to consider a Gold Cup bid, particularly in what looks an open renewal. However, the Riccis love nothing more than success at Cheltenham and the long-distance novice slot looks Royale Pagaille’s best opportunity to continue his winning run.

Bravemansgame – Paul Nicholls – Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle

Bravemansgame on his way to winning the Challow Hurdle
Bravemansgame on his way to winning the Challow Hurdle (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The day-two opener has been dominated by Ireland in recent years, but while a strong raiding party assembled once more, Bravemansgame might just ensure this year’s renewal stays at home. An expensive purchase at £370,000, the Irish point-to-point graduate was actually beaten on his hurdling debut, but has since rattled off a hat-trick of wide-margin wins. Trainer Paul Nicholls, who has compared this five-year-old to the great Denman in terms of physique and potential, has elected to keep his charge fresh for the Festival – giving him plenty of time to recover from his latest triumph in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury in December. Denman actually suffered a rare defeat in this race, but Bravemansgame is fancied to prevail where the former Nicholls star did not.

Paisley Park – Emma Lavelle – Stayers’ Hurdle

Paisley Park is bidding to regain his Stayers' Hurdle title
Paisley Park is bidding to regain his Stayers’ Hurdle title (Nigel French/PA)

The three-mile hurdling championship is perhaps the only race at this year’s Festival in which the British appear to hold the aces, with the ante-post market having been dominated throughout the winter by familiar foes in Paisley Park and Thyme Hill. Paisley Park looked set to rule the division for years to come after winning this race a couple of years ago, but was found to be suffering from a heart problem when attempting to defend his crown. Such an issue may have finished lesser horses, but Lavelle’s stable star has bounced back to at least somewhere near his best this season – going down narrowly to Thyme Hill at Newbury before reversing the form in a thrilling Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. Thyme Hill sadly misses out, so while there are a couple of interesting Irish runners lurking, Paisley Park should be very hard to beat.

THE IRISH

Appreciate It – Willie Mullins – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

Appreciate It after his latest victory at Leopardstown
Appreciate It after his latest victory at Leopardstown (Niall Carson/PA)

Willie Mullins has saddled four of the last eight winners of the Festival curtain-raiser and houses this year’s hot favourite in Appreciate It. Runner-up to stablemate Ferny Hollow in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago, the imposing son of Jeremy is unbeaten in three starts over hurdles this season including a pair of Grade One wins at Leopardstown. There is a suspicion the seven-year-old will want further than two miles in time, but he has proved he has enough speed to compete at the minimum distance at the top level and if the ground is on the soft side, there is every chance Appreciate It will get punters off to the perfect start.

Monkfish – Willie Mullins – Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase

Monkfish looks one of the bankers of this year's Festival
Monkfish looks one of the bankers of this year’s Festival (Niall Carson/PA)

Already a Festival hero having coming out on top in a four-way finish to last season’s Albert Bartlett, Monkfish has taken his game to even greater heights this term with three foot-perfect efforts over fences. Having only narrowly beaten the high-class Latest Exhibition 12 months ago, the chestnut gelding was a more authoritative winner when the pair met at Leopardstown over Christmas and left him trailing in his wake on their most recent meeting last month – a measure of Monkfish’s upward trajectory. He travels well without being keen, has jumped impeccably to date and has already proven his stamina and ability to handle the track. What’s not to like?

Chacun Pour Soi – Willie Mullins – Queen Mother Champion Chase

Chacun Pour Soi is a red-hot favourite for the Champion Chase
Chacun Pour Soi is a red-hot favourite for the Champion Chase (PA)

Day two promises to be a big one for the all-conquering Mullins team, with Chacun Pour Soi bidding to provide the winning-most trainer in Festival history with his first Champion Chase success. A late absentee last season after suffering a minor setback on the morning of the race, the nine-year-old has oozed class in three subsequent starts, most recently winning the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown for the second year in succession. With serious doubts about whether dual winner Altior can rediscover his spark, the way looks clear for Chacun Pour Soi to confirm himself as the new star of one of the most exciting divisions in the sport.

Envoi Allen – Henry de Bromhead – Marsh Novices’ Chase

Envoi Allen is poetry in motion
Envoi Allen is poetry in motion (PA)

If you were to take a poll from National Hunt fans of who they believe is the most exciting horse in training, the majority would go for Envoi Allen. And even more eyes than usual will be on him this year following his switch from Gordon Elliott. The Cheveley Park Stud-owned gelding has lived up to his expensive price-tag with 11 straight wins under rules, a run which includes victories in the Champion Bumper and the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. So far this season he has blown his rivals away in three starts over fences without making a semblance of a mistake in the jumping department. There is an obvious question mark in terms of how the upheaval of moving yards so close to Cheltenham will affect him, but in short, he looks a class apart.

Al Boum Photo – Willie Mullins – Cheltenham Gold Cup

Al Boum Photo after winning his second Cheltenham Gold Cup
Al Boum Photo after winning his second Cheltenham Gold Cup (Tim Goode/PA)

There is little doubt that for whatever reason, dual Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo is underappreciated and perhaps underrated by the racing public. He is not an outstanding physical specimen, his owners are not big talkers and he has run only four times since winning his first Gold Cup two years ago. But he has also got the job done on the biggest stage of all on a couple of occasions. Just as he has in the past two seasons, he has run just once prior to the Gold Cup – at Tramore on New Year’s Day, where there was nothing in his latest performance to suggest his powers are on the wane. Only a handful of horses have won three Gold Cups, but very few if any of Al Boum Photo’s rivals have enhanced their reputation in is absence this season. In fact, Champ apart, a few look to have gone backwards. Mullins’ charge appears ground and tactically versatile and has an excellent chance of etching his name into National Hunt folklore.

Epatante and Honeysuckle on course for Champion Hurdle as 14 remain

Defending champion Epatante and fellow mare Honeysuckle are among 14 left in the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham next week.

Nicky Henderson’s Epatante will need to put a below-par effort at Kempton behind her if she is to join a relatively long list of multiple champion hurdlers.

Having looked better than ever when winning the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, she had no answer to the enterprisingly-ridden Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

The pair will meet again, with Evan Williams hoping his grey gets his favoured good ground once more, while Henderson reports his runner to be in fine form at home.

Nicky Henderson with Epatante
Nicky Henderson with Epatante (David Davies/PA)

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He told TalkSport: “Both (Champion Chase hope) Altior and Epatante did their last pieces of work this morning, and it went remarkably well.

“Our horses probably weren’t quite on song at Christmas. It was, for her, very disappointing in the Christmas Hurdle because she was so impressive in it last year, as she was in the Fighting Fifth first time out this year.

“Everything seems to be back on song. They both had their last serious piece of work – and we were all very, very happy.

Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle remains unbeaten in her career and also has a previous Festival win to her credit – having got the better of Benie Des Dieux in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle 12 months ago.

This time she is in against the boys – but it is nothing she has not faced before, given she has won the Irish Champion Hurdle for the last two seasons.

De Bromhead also has a more than useful second string to his bow in the form of Aspire Tower – while his recent Red Mills Hurdle winner Jason The Militant may also line up.

Gary Moore’s Goshen would be a popular winner after what happened in the Triumph Hurdle last year, with that race at his mercy. He put himself right back in the picture with a stunning display at Wincanton recently.

Goshen unseated Jamie Moore at the last when well clear in the Triumph last year
Goshen unseated Jamie Moore at the last when well clear in the Triumph last year (Simon Cooper/PA)

Last year’s runner-up Sharjah is set to be back again for Willie Mullins but will have to do without the assistance of regular rider Patrick Mullins because of the current ban on amateur jockeys in Britain.

Mullins also has an interesting contender in James Du Berlais, who has been brought over from France essentially to go novice chasing next year. But given his lofty rating, Mullins is due to let him take his chance in this along the way. Saldier could also run for the same team.

Denise Foster, in her role as stand-in for Gordon Elliott while he serves his six-month ban, has Abacadabras and Petit Mouchoir still in the reckoning.

Not So Sleepy, For Pleasure and Song For Someone complete those still engaged.

Possibility of cheekpieces not ruled out for Altior at Cheltenham

Nicky Henderson has raised the possibility of Altior being fitted with headgear for the first time to aid his bid for a third victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.

The 11-year-old is unbeaten in four previous appearances at the Festival, having won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Arkle Trophy and back-to-back runnings of the Champion Chase.

Despite his excellent record at the showpiece meeting, Altior will return to the Cotswolds as an underdog next month, having missed last year’s Festival through injury and endured a far from straightforward campaign so far this term.

However, speaking on a Zoom call to discuss his Festival squad on Thursday, Henderson was in optimistic mood when assessing Altior’s chances of regaining his Champion Chase crown – and admitted he is considering the application of cheekpieces in three weeks’ time.

Altior looks on from his box at Seven Barrows
Altior looks on from his box at Seven Barrows (David Davies/PA)

“He is great – he couldn’t be better. I’m very, very happy,” said the Seven Barrows handler.

“I think his whole demeanour is in a better place than it was.

“It hasn’t been easy – nothing in life is easy. Having been invincible, luck hasn’t gone his way with ground and things like that.”

When asked if his stable star could be declared with headgear when aiming to become only the second horse to win a third Champion Chase, after Badsworth Boy in the 1980s, Henderson added: “It will be considered and it’s something we have discussed.

“We have eliminated the Ryanair, so we might now try to sharpen him up a little bit over two miles.”

Altior has raced just once so far this season, having missed the Tingle Creek beforehand and the rearranged Game Spirit Chase since.

The High Chaparral gelding was laboured in suffering just his second career defeat in 22 starts over obstacles when runner-up to Nube Negra in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, but Henderson feels he is in much better shape now than he was before the turn of the year.

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He said: “He raced very lazily and lacked his normal sharpness and accuracy at Kempton over Christmas. It was a pity Newbury had to go back a week as it took us off our step a little bit and we decided that we were going to tackle this a different way.

“Having missed the Game Spirit, Altior has since had a big gallop, jumping fences. He went off with Mister Fisher, who hasn’t run for a bit as well, and they were in good form and it all went very well.”

Former stable companion Sprinter Sacre sparked one of the most emotional scenes in recent Cheltenham Festival history when regaining his Champion Chase crown five years ago, and his trainer would love to see Altior follow suit.

He added: “One has to remember he is 11 now and he’s on 11-year-old legs.

“Sprinter winning his second Champion Chase was a miracle, and I don’t think you can hope for two miracles.

“It would be very special if Altior could do it, because he’s been a fantastic horse to have had.”

Henderson also issued upbeat reports on the well-being of his Unibet Champion Hurdle contenders, Epatante and Buveur D’Air.

Epatante was brilliant in last year's Champion Hurdle
Epatante was brilliant in last year’s Champion Hurdle (Tim Goode/PA)

Epatante is the defending champion, but needs to raise her game after suffering a shock defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, while Buveur D’Air is out to wrestle back his crown, having struck Champion Hurdle gold in 2017 and 2018.

Henderson said: “They’re both past winners of the Champion Hurdle. They’ve both got little bits of work to do, but touch wood, they seem in good form.

“Epatante was very good in the Fighting Fifth (at Newcastle) and Christmas just didn’t go her way. We have a few things we hope we’ve ironed out, as obviously she is better than that.

“If we’ve got her back to where she was in the Fighting Fifth, then she’s got as good a chance as any.”

Buveur D’Air was a beaten odds-on favourite on his return from well over a year off the track at Haydock last month, but Henderson feels it would be dangerous to dismiss his chances at Cheltenham.

Buveur D'Air should not be written off at Cheltenham
Buveur D’Air should not be written off at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

He added: “I actually think Buveur D’Air has been forgotten. He’s out with the washing at the moment (in the betting), whereas Epatante is sharing the favourite line with Honeysuckle and Goshen now as well. It’s going to be very competitive.”

Of Goshen, who returned to his best at Wincanton at the weekend, Henderson said: “I’ve got to say I really do commend the Gary Moore team for getting Goshen back, because at the Triumph Hurdle last year he looked to be certainly one of our biggest threats this year, and then it looked as if he wasn’t on the radar at all.

“They’ve done a brilliant job to get him back and he looks a very potent threat, so we’ll see what we can do about that.”

The yard’s other big hope on the opening day of the Festival is Shishkin, who puts his unbeaten record over fences on the line in the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy.

Last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle hero is a hot favourite to double his Festival tally, but Henderson acknowledges his task is far from straightforward, with Irish Arkle winner Energumene rated a potent threat.

He said: “It’s amazing how this race has changed. Three or four weeks ago Shishkin was odds-on and everyone was saying it would be boring, but all of a sudden Willie (Mullins) has come along with his two-mile novice (Energumene) and I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick.

“There’s a real fight on now and I think people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week.

Shishkin leads horses on the gallops at Seven Barrows
Shishkin leads horses on the gallops at Seven Barrows (David Davies/PA)

“He’s got a couple of bits of work to do and will have another school.

“Everything is fairly well on course at the moment.”

When going through some of his other Festival contenders, Henderson appeared particularly sweet on the chances of the aforementioned Mister Fisher in the Ryanair Chase, adding: “I’d like to think he’s got a very good shout.

“He went away with Altior earlier this week and his jumping has been very good.

“He won the Peterborough Chase, which was moved from Huntingdon to Cheltenham, and put up a first-class performance.

“He would very much like good ground. If he gets some decent ground, I think he’ll be very competitive.”

Henderson reveals back issue for Epatante

Epatante has been treated for a back issue since her defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

Nicky Henderson’s mare, the reigning champion hurdler, suffered her first defeat since the 2019 Cheltenham Festival at the hands of Silver Streak.

Her winning spree encompassed three Grade Ones, but she was turned over at 1-5 at Kempton and had Henderson looking for a reason – which he thinks he may have found.

“No (she won’t run before Cheltenham), that’s an easy answer. She didn’t last year and she won’t this year,” Henderson told ITV’s The Opening Show.

“We’re very pleased. We’ve been tinkering, obviously she wasn’t right at Kempton.

“It was her back, more than anything, I think, and that is what we have been trying to sort out – hopefully we have. It’s just got her more relaxed in her back and more supple. Something was agitating her on the day.”

Henderson, who also confirmed Santini will run at Sandown next weekend if, as suggested, the Cotswold Chase is rearranged there, admitted he is still favouring the Queen Mother over the Ryanair Chase for former champion chaser Altior.

“He’ll run in the Game Spirit and then we’ll decide from there. He’s in both, but I would be favouring the Champion Chase,” he said.

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.