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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Cornerstone Lad booked for Fighting Fifth repeat, then chasing beckons

Micky Hammond’s Cornerstone Lad will attempt to retain his Fighting Fifth Hurdle crown before embarking on a chasing career.

The six-year-old returned to winning ways on the Flat at Redcar on Tuesday, claiming a one-mile-six-furlong handicap by a neck from Jackamundo.

Redcar was also the scene of the gelding’s seasonal reappearance in October, when he finished fourth in another handicap on the level over the same distance.

“We did it last year,” Hammond said of the decision to run the Grade One-winner on the Flat in the early part of the season.

“He won on the Flat at Catterick before he won at Wetherby and then went on to the Fighting Fifth. That shows he’s well capable of winning on the Flat, but obviously he’s a far better jumper than a Flat horse.

“That was our thinking behind it really, but it was great that he got his head back in front.”

Hammond is now aiming for a repeat of last season’s Fighting Fifth success on November 28 before he begins to campaign his stable star over fences.

“He’s going to the Fighting Fifth, he’ll be going back to Newcastle for that,” he said.

“I think the long-term plan would be to go steeplechasing, he’s been schooling over fences as well as hurdles and I think that’s probably the route he’ll go down, that will happen after Newcastle.”

The Middleham trainer does not have a specific starting point in mind for the bay’s switch to fences, preferring to see how he schools after his recent exertions and go from there.

“We’ve not got any plans really,” he said.

“We’ll just see how he comes out of the Redcar race and then just build up from there.”

Hammond planning second Flat spin for Cornerstone Lad

Cornerstone Lad is set to have a second warm-up run on the Flat before connections decide whether to bid for back-to-back victories in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle or go straight over fences.

Trainer Micky Hammond was happy with the six-year-old’s effort at Redcar when he was fourth in a mile-and-three-quarters handicap on his first start since he was pulled up in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March.

A wind operation during the summer appears to have helped Cornerstone Lad and the Hammond team can now look forward to the winter.

“He’s doing fine. I was pleased with his run. He had a wind op in the mid to late summer,” said the North Yorkshire handler.

“I think he’ll have one more run before he goes back jumping.

“He’s sure to have an entry in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and there’s a good chance he will go novice chasing this season.

“I’ve yet to properly discuss it with Mrs Lofthouse, his owner, but I think there’s every chance he’ll be doing that this time around. We’re keeping our options open.

“He hasn’t done any schooling over fences this time around. He did school over fences last year. He’s been up the Middleham all-weather track jumping six French-style Southwell hurdles on a couple of occasions.

“That’s the only jumping he’s done since he’s been back in.

“I think he’ll run on the Flat towards the end of this month, providing there is sufficient cut in the ground, then we’ll decide if we go for the Fighting Fifth or go straight over fences, or win the Fighting Fifth again and stay over hurdles.

“It’s a nice problem to have.”

Race Histories 9 – The Fighting Fifth Hurdle

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