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There may not be the rapturous ‘Cheltenham Roar’ echoing around the iconic concourses of Prestbury Park in a couple of weeks. However, there is still plenty to look forward to at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, including all of the blockbuster Grade 1 outing across the four-day meeting.
Punters’ mouths will be salivating at the thought of Epatante and Honeysuckle going head-to-head in the day one feature race, the Champion Hurdle, and it’s sure to be a thrilling encounter.
The Nicky Henderson-trained Epatante will be defending her crown after beating Sharjah by three lengths in last year’s race. However, the unbeaten Honeysuckle poses a real threat to the seven-year-old. In fact, she is now the market leader to win the opening day showpiece, according to the latest Champion Hurdle odds.
The horse’s stark contrast in recent form is the emphasis in the market changing from favoring last year’s winner to Honeysuckle in recent weeks. Epatante backed up her Champion Hurdle victory with a comfortable win in the Grade 1 Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November.
However, following a shock defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, where she set off as the 1/5 favorite before being beaten by Silver Streak by over six lengths, Henderson revealed that she was suffering from a back injury but hopes that that niggle has now been resolved.
“We’re very pleased. We’ve been tinkering; obviously, she wasn’t right at Kempton,” the former Cheltenham Leading Trainer said. “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.”
Of course, to compete with the likes of Honeysuckle, Epatante will need to be in tip-top shape. The Henry de Bromhead-trained mare made her intentions clear with an emphatic 10-length victory over fellow Champion Hurdle contender Abacadabras in the Irish edition at Leopardstown last month.
“That was deadly, what we hoped she’d do,” De Bromhead said after the Irish Champion Hurdle victory. “She was brilliant, and Rachael [Blackmore] was brilliant on her. We’ll see [about her Cheltenham target], but you’d have to feel that we will be leaning that way [the Champion Hurdle].”
That win moved Honeysuckle’s unbeaten record to 11 straight wins. Whenever you factored in her David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle triumph at Prestbury Park last year, it’s no surprise really that she has leapfrogged Epatante in the market.
Honeysuckle was once as far out as 16/1 to win the two-mile race on the opening day of the Festival, but she is now as short as 9/4, just ahead of Epatante at 11/4. However, given her deadly form, and apparent injury concerns to her main contender, you wouldn’t be surprised to see Blackmore and Honeysuckle romping clear over the line.
The fact that we haven’t seen Epatante run since she was carrying that back injury is another worry. We won’t truly know if Henderson’s team has been able to get rid of the problem fully until she sets off in the Champion Hurdle.
Here’s hoping that Epatante is up to full fitness. However, a clash between her and Honeysuckle certainly has the billing to be a great curtain-raiser for the rest of the four days.
Meanwhile, Henderson still has a big decision to make regarding Champ’s entries. After a solid outing in the Betfair Game Spirit at Newbury in February, last year’s RSA Novices’ Chase winner is now as short as 6/1 to win the Gold Cup. However, his odds were also slashed to 10/1 in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle ante-post betting. So, Henderson certainly has his options open.