Epatante looks a worthy favourite to further enhance the superb record of trainer Nicky Hendesron and owner JP McManus in the Grade 1 Champion Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival this Tuesday (15:30).
The Seven Barrows handler is the most successful in the history of the 2m championship contest with seven wins to his name.
McManus, meanwhile, has seen his famous green and gold hooped colours carried to victory a record eight times – including each of the last three renewals.
In Epatante, they have a six-year-old mare who has taken her form to a new level this season in winning both her starts in the manner of a top notch prospect.
The first of those was the Listed contest at Newbury best known as the Gerry Feilden, where the daughter of No Risk At All made a total mockery of her handicap mark of 137.
After racing in touch, Aidan Coleman brought the 3/1 favourite through to challenge going well three from home.
Epatante then put in a slightly awkward jump when challenging at the second last, but was quickly back on the bridle approaching the final flight.
She then soon got on top on the run-in and showed a very smart turn of foot to score easily by six lengths from Elusive Belle.
Ultra-impressive in Christmas Hurdle
It was a performance which oozed star quality and the race has an illustrious roll of honour – including Comedy Of Errors, Lanzarote. Kribensis and Rock On Ruby who all went on to taste Champion Hurdle success.
Epatante then took the step up in Grade 1 company in her stride when quickening clear to impressively account for Silver Streak by five lengths in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
She was lightning quick at the obstacles and to beat Evan Williams’ charge, who finished third in this 12 months ago, in such facile fashion was ultra-impressive.
The third home Ballyandy, who was beaten a further 3 1/4 lengths, has since gone on to beat Pentland Hills – who is second-favourite for this – in a Grade 2 at Haydock.
That gives the form a solid look. Epatante has now four of her five starts over the obstacles and remains open to stacks more progression. She also has proven form on the forecast soft ground.
Another plus is that she receives a handy 7lb sex allowance. Taking it into account, the 159-rated Epatante comes out 4lb and upwards clear of her rivals on adjusted ratings.
She is therefore a strong fancy at 7/2 with Paddy Power to become the fifth mare to win the Champion Hurdle after Annie Power (2016), Flakey Dove (1994), Dawn Run (1984) and African Sister (1939).
Pentland Hills looks plenty short enough in Champion Hurdle
The aforementioned Pentland Hills, who is also trained by Henderson, is already a Cheltenham Festival winner having landed last year’s Triumph Hurdle.
The five-year-old went on to round off the campaign with success in another Grade 1 at Aintree during the Grand National meeting when digging deep to fend off the persistent challenge of Fakir D’oudairies.
Pentland Hills has had just two starts this season and shaped really well in the first of those at this venue in the Grade 2 International Hurdle at Cheltenham when fifth to stable companion Call Me Lord,
After racing keenly on the heels of the leaders under regular pilot Nico de Boinville, the son of Motivator tanked his way into the lead approaching the last.
He appeared to be travelling strongly at that stage, but lack of race fitness then took its toll on very testing ground and he weakened badly in the final 100 yards.
Pentland Hills travelled like much the best horse in the race, so it was a highly promising comeback after 254 days on the sidelines.
That saw him sent off favourite for the Grade 2 Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock but, after again travelling strongly and quickening clear on the run-in, he got collared close home and beaten a short-head by Ballyandy.
Pentland Hills found far less than expected yet again and connections have since cauterised his palate in case there could be a breathing issue.
That has to be a big concern for his supporters, as well as the fact that he has pulled very hard in both those races.
At 5/1 with Betway, Pentland Hills therefore looks very short in the betting and worth taking on.
Cilaos Emery among Irish challengers
The Irish challenge is headed by Cilaos Emery, who has been supplemented at a cost of £22,500 after successfully reverting to hurdles at Gowran Park last month.
This Willie Mullins trained eight year-old was a smart novice hurdler in 2017, finishing fifth to Laibak in the Supreme Novices Hurdle here.
He went on to beat Melon – runner-up in the last two renewals of the Champion Hurdle – by a length in a Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival.
Cilaos Emery subsequently spent a lengthy spell on the sidelines, but showed that he retained stacks of ability when winning all of his first three of his starts over fences and progressing with each outing.
He then fell in the Grade 1 Dublin Chase at Leopardstown, before being switched back to the smaller obstacles and beating Darasso by nine lengths in the Grade 3 Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran.
Cilaos Emery stayed on strongly to score with plenty in hand, but was receiving 7lb form the runner-up who was officially rated just 5lb his inferior.
Darasso had also previously finished a disappointing 8 3/4 lengths last of four to Ballyandy in a Grade 2 at Haydock, whilst the third home Mengli Khan has since finished a 26 length third to the 144-rated Charli Parcs at Leopardstown.
That gives the form of the race a highly questionable look, and suggests that odds of 7/1 with William Hill about Cilaos Emery aren’t fully justified.
However, his handler is the most successful in the history of the Cheltenham Festival and wouldn’t have stumped up the supplementary fee if he didn’t believe he had a live chance.
It would therefore be folly to underestimate the claims of Cilaos Emery in what is arguably a weak renewal of the Champion Hurdle.
Supasundae the Champion Hurdle each-way value
Supasundae is an ultra-tough and consistent sort who looks sure to give it his best shot, so – at 10/1 with Unibet who are paying four places – makes plenty of appeal from an each-way betting perspective.
Trained in Ireland by Jessica Harrington, this popular 10-year-old landed the ultra-competitive 25-runner Coral Cup over 2m 5f at this meeting in 2017 when beating Taquin Du Seuil by two lengths.
Supasundae went on to beat Faugheen in the 2m Grade 1 irish Champion Hurdle the following year, before finishing runner-up to Penhill in the Stayers’ Hurdle here.
The son of Galileo went on to land a Grade 1 at the Punchestown festival and also tasted success at the highest level last year when beating dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air by 1 1/4 lengths in the 2m 4f Aintree Hurdle.
Supasundae comes into this on the back of just one run this season, when finishing a highly promising 4 3/4 lengths fourth to unbeaten mare Honeysuckle in the Grade 1 Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.
He looks sure to come on a bundle for that spin, his first for 274 days, and Harrington has been very bullish about his chances in the build up to this.
Supasundae’s proven form over further also means that he is sure to be staying on at the business end of affairs when others have cried enough.
He certainly has form in the book that makes him a big player in this so, despite stats suggesting that he is too old to land the spoils, it would be no surprise to see Supasundae hit the frame at double figure odds.