Horse Talk with Simon Jackson:
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NICKY Henderson has won three of the past four Unibet Champion Hurdles with Buveur D’Air and Epatante and is upbeat on their chances this year.
Epatante’s three-length win last year was Henderson’s eighth success in the feature race on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival. The Lambourn-based handler had previously scored with See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987), Punjabi (2009), Binocular (2010) and Buveur D’Air (2017, 2018).
Epatante was unsurped as favourite for this year’s contest after finishing second to Silver Streak in the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park in December.
The surprise defeat followed an emphatic victory in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle earlier that month and Henderson is upbeat about the mare’s chances at Cheltenham on March 16, where she is priced at 3-1 behind favourite Honeysuckle (9-4).
“Kempton was disappointing because she was very, very good in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle. Christmas just didn’t go her way, she wasn’t herself, but fair play to the winner Silver Streak, who was very good and set a proper test, and we were at no stage really in a position to have a crack at him.
“We have a few things ironed out I hope because obviously she is better than that but Silver Streak was very good on the day and we weren’t – but I think we’re back in the right place now.
“Newcastle was a bit of a mess because Silver Streak was taken out with another early on and that emptied the race a fair bit, but take nothing away from her, she was very impressive. She picked up Sceau Royal who was leading to the last and she went past him with so much class.
“She looked wonderful there, and if we’ve got her back there, she’s got as good a chance as any.”
Buveur D’Air missed the 2020 Champion Hurdle through injury and this season finished second on unsuitably heavy ground in a Grade 2 race at Haydock.
Henderson said: “We’ve always in the past used the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown for Buveur D’Air and I rather felt we were a fortnight ahead of where I envisaged we’d be, so I went to Haydock and I don’t think he’d have been any fitter in another fortnight’s time.
“The Contenders was abandoned which actually only left the Elite Hurdle as an opportunity and I don’t really think that Wincanton was his sort of place.
“Haydock was particularly testing and we were in a period where only two going descriptions were available – abandoned or heavy – so you either took it and got on with it or stayed at home.
“It did just find him out at Haydock, I thought we were going to get there going to the last but he probably just emptied a bit and he was entitled to in that ground but it did him the world of good and he’s in good shape.”
The trainer added that his other two entries – Verdana Blue and Buzz – are likely to have other targets.
“Verdana Blue is in that and the Mares’ Hurdle, we’ll have to see what the ground is for her – she’s always been rather dependant on good ground. We’ll probably have a look at the Mares’ Hurdle.
“Buzz was in there on the grounds that should he have won the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury with top weight it would probably have shown him as a Champion Hurdle horse, but he looks to me as a horse who wants a bit further than two miles, and he’ll probably switch.”
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