Nicky Henderson insists Epatante is “back where she belongs” after registering successive Grade One wins on her two starts this season, although the six-time champion Jump trainer admits she faces a “big task” dethroning Honeysuckle in the Unibet Champion Hurdle on the opening day of The Festival™ at Cheltenham (Tuesday 15th March).
The Seven Barrows handler's chances of securing a record-extending ninth victory in the championship Grade One contest appear to rest with Epatante, who claimed the 2020 renewal of the two-mile prize before finishing third to Honeysuckle in last year’s race.
After undergoing treatment for a back issue over the summer the JP McManus-owned eight year old, who features among 23 entries revealed today for the 2022 Unibet Champion Hurdle, has appeared close to her very best in both of her starts this campaign.
Having dead-heated for first when defending her Fighting Fifth title at Newcastle in November, the No Risk At All mare then slammed her rivals in devastating fashion at Kempton Park on Boxing Day in the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle, a contest she had previously won in 2019.
Henderson said: “It has gone very well with Epatante so far.
“JP (McManus, owner) said what happens in March will be difficult but we have got two objectives at the beginning of the season - the Fighting Fifth and the Christmas Hurdle and they are going to be our Champion Hurdles.
“Okay, we had to halve one but we won the other one very well, so we have in many ways achieved our objectives. I think she has performed to a very high level. At Kempton, she was nearly as good as she has ever been.
“The Fighting Fifth last season was great then the wheels came off a little bit. She had issues. We mended them and that is what the summer is for to put things back together again.
“I think it is safe to say that questions have been answered successfully and consequently she is back where she belongs.
“Now, it is a couple of years on since she won the Champion Hurdle and a certain Honeysuckle has appeared on the scene in the meantime.
“I’m the first to admit it – the Champion Hurdle was a stronger race last year but we weren't at our best and we still finished third.
“We’ve got a lot of ground to make up and have a big task ahead of us. There is a lot of kudos at being placed in Champion Hurdles, let alone winning one. There is not much else for her to do to, be honest with you.”
After enduring a tricky second half of last season with Epatante, one thing Henderson has been especially pleased to see return this campaign is her electric jumping that has served her so well in the past.
He continued: “We talked about her with JP on Sunday and she is in very good form and is in a very good place. Her jumping is completely different to last season.
“She travelled very well in the Christmas Hurdle. You don’t normally go on that early with her, but she was travelling all over them at Kempton
“She came in looking wonderful back from Martinstown (JP McManus’ stud in Ireland) and she was moving good and you could tell straight away when we were schooling her that she had her jumping back together again.
“That has always been her strongest suit and she has always been very quick crossing a hurdle. Nico (de Boinville) schooled her once before Kempton but he didn’t need to jump more than five hurdles as she was electric and she was brilliant through the race.
“I said to JP I wonder if we would ever get two and a half with her as you could switch her to the Mares’ Hurdle.
“Nico has only ridden her once and I said would she get two and a half and he said no - she is all speed. She is a two miler and that is where she is going.”
Henderson plans to send Epatante straight to the Unibet Champion Hurdle with the possibility of one or two away days between now and Tuesday 15th March.
He added: “She will go to the racecourse in the meantime but I very much doubt she will have another run as she doesn’t need one.
“Yes, she will have a racecourse gallop and that will fit in accordingly.
"She might go twice and have one on the grass and one on the all-weather when we take that squad to Kempton 10 days before Cheltenham.
“It is just a nice away day for them where they can enjoy themselves.”
Epatante could be joined in the Champion Hurdle by stablemate and 2017 and 2018 winner of the race Buveur D’Air, who will return to Seven Barrows this week.
The 11 year old has not been sighted since finishing a creditable fourth on his return to two and a half miles in the Grade One Betway Aintree Hurdle in April.
Henderson said: “I’m going to bowl a bit of a googly here as we have entered Buveur D’Air as well.
“He hit a problem after Aintree and then he couldn’t go to Punchestown, so they have been repairing the issue in Ireland. We are all looking forward to seeing him back.
“He has been doing lots of work in Ireland and they have made sure everything is in good working order, which apparently it is.
“I wouldn’t think he would go straight to Cheltenham and it might be that he needs the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown Park (Saturday 5th February) first, which he has won before (2017 & 2018).”
Buveur D’Air also features alongside his stablemate Champ in the 33 entries received for the Grade One Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at The Festival™ (Thursday 17th March).
Henderson added: “We’ve put Buveur D’Air in the Stayers’ Hurdle as well as his run over two and a half at Aintree last season was a staggeringly good run.
“He tanked through the race and he got there too soon as his lead horse went over at the last on the far side.
“That left him with no cover and he tanked off. He was having such good fun. He showed us that day there is all sorts of life left in him.”
Like Buveur D’Air, a decision as to which race Champ will tackle at The Festival™ remains up in the air.
With an entry in the Cheltenham Gold Cup already to his name, the 10 year old thrust into contention for the Stayers’ Hurdle with victory in last month’s Grade One Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.
Henderson said: “Champ has a Gold Cup and a Stayers Hurdle entry. It is a very difficult one to juggle which we haven’t got to do at this particular moment.
“No doubt, the most straightforward is the hurdles route but on the other hand he has won an RSA.
“You can forget about the Gold Cup last year. He had a problem but we’ve ironed that out. The balls are up in the air.
“Ante-post markets have to be respected but I can’t make decisions just to help things on that score.
"He is in both and they are both mega prizes. The Gold Cup is the Blue Riband but the Stayers’ Hurdle ain’t bad either.”
Reflecting on Champ’s latest effort at Ascot Henderson admits he was surprised how the JP McManus-owned gelding, who is named in honour of now record-breaking 20-times champion Jump jockey Sir AP McCoy, travelled through the race.
He added: "He is such an honest person and he loves it. The surprise was the ease how he travelled through the race and the accuracy of his jumping after the problems we have had.
"The way he travelled through the race you were thinking he has got to blow up in a minute as he hadn’t had a real race since the Game Spirit as he didn’t have a race in the Gold Cup then he was away and home as he had to get mended.
“He hadn’t had a racecourse gallop or anything. We just done our own thing. You can’t help but he think he will have improved for it.”
An outing in the Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day (Saturday 29th January) could be on the agenda for Champ before he returns to the Home of Jump Racing for The Festival™ in March. However, his next target is far from set in stone according to Henderson.
The trainer concluded: “I suppose what we have to decide is whether we go to the Cleeve Hurdle. It is a definite possibility that he will have an entry in that.
“Chantry House is going to the Cotswold Chase on the same day but plans could move and you could bring Champ into the Cotswold Chase and leave Chantry House to the Denman (at Newbury in February).
“It is slightly the other way around at the moment but it is not something you would hang your hat on. We know he comes up the Cheltenham hill, so it is all positive stuff.”