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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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