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Epatante is back to defend her crown after a three-length victory over Sharjah and Darver Star at Prestbury Park 12 months ago, but the Nicky Henderson-trained charger has a tough test on her hands in the form of Honeysuckle.
The seven-year-old, saddled by Henry de Bromhead and ridden by Rachael Blackmore, is unbeaten in 10 outings so far during her career – including an eye-catching win in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown earlier this season.
The two mares head the market while there are plenty of other contenders worth a look – particularly considering Paddy Power are offering non-runner money back on every race at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival – but who will come out on top?
Epatante on the back foot
Epatante enjoyed a startling campaign last year, comfortably winning the Gerry Feilden at Newbury before beating Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton as preparation for Cheltenham.
She then duly delivered on that promise with a brilliant Champion Hurdle victory, staying on strongly to banish memories of her disappointing 2019 Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle display – a ninth-place finish behind Eglantine Du Seuil when sent off favourite.
Epatante (OR 161)
Hurdle Runs – 8, Wins – 6, Placings – 119/111-12
Epatante was unsurprisingly installed as antepost favourite for this year’s Champion Hurdle renewal immediately after her 2020 triumph, and she started the current campaign well with victory over Sceau Royal in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle.
However, Henderson and co suffered a setback when the seven-year-old was surprisingly beaten by Silver Streak in December’s Christmas Hurdle – casting doubt over her chances at Cheltenham this time around.
Epatante still boasts an enviable record of six wins from eight runs over hurdles, and her team certainly know what it takes to consistently succeed in the Champion Hurdle – Henderson has trained the winner a record eight times, four of them for JP McManus, who has lifted the trophy nine times since 1998.
Honeysuckle the favourite
The rise of Honeysuckle over the past two seasons has been meteoric, with the mare now antepost favourite for the Champion Hurdle after the latest of her 10 wins over flights.
The Kenneth Alexander-owned seven-year-old absolutely trounced a stellar Irish Champion Hurdle field at Leopardstown last time out, beating nearest challenger Abacadabras by 10 lengths to win the 2m contest for a second consecutive year.
Honeysuckle (OR 161)
Hurdle Runs – 10, Wins – 10, Placings – 1111/1111-11
The performance rubber-stamped Honeysuckle’s Cheltenham credentials, with jockey Rachael Blackmore effusive in her praise for her partner’s display as they easily saw off the highly-rated Sharjah and Saint Roi among others.
That was only Honeysuckle’s second run since her Mares’ Hurdle victory at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, although her other outing in November was also a Grade 1 win – beating Ronald Pump by half a length in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse.
Indeed, six of Honeysuckle’s wins have come at Fairyhouse (five of those over 2m4f) but at Leopardstown she was quicker and slicker than she has ever been before, and the display has seen her emerge as the horse most likely to dislodge Epatante as the best hurdler in the business.
Our experts’ views
Ruby Walsh: “Before Christmas I would have fancied Epatante but since the Irish Champion Hurdle, I would be all over HONEYSUCKLE. She’ll be a dead straightforward mare to ride too – if someone wants to go really fast, she’ll get an ideal lead in second place while if no-one wants to go she knows she can rock along.”
PP trader Frank Hickey: “The Irish or Epatante will win the Champion Hurdle, and HONEYSUCKLE should be clear favourite and is the most likely winner.”
“The weather in the middle of March will play a part, but the difference between success and failure could be decided by which one of these two talented mares makes fewer – if any – mistakes.”
Timeform: “HONEYSUCKLE has a Timeform rating 3lb higher than last year’s Champion Hurdle winner Epatante, who had been a deserving favourite in light of the paucity of credible rivals. However, she now looms large and is the one to beat.”
When is the Champion Hurdle?
The Champion Hurdle takes place on Tuesday March 16, on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival 2021. It’s scheduled to start at 15.05.
CHAMPION HURDLE WINNERS AT THE LAST FIVE FESTIVALS
2020 – Epatante (Horse), Barry Geraghty (Jockey), Nicky Henderson (Trainer)
2019 – Espoir D’Allen, Mark Walsh, Gavin Cromwell
2018 – Buveur D’Air, Barry Geraghty, Nicky Henderson
2017 – Buveur D’Air, Noel Fehily, Nicky Henderson
2016 – Annie Power, Ruby Walsh, Willie Mullins
CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL‘S BIG RACES
March 16 – 13.20 – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle latest odds and tips
March 16 – 15.05 – Champion Hurdle latest odds and tips
March 16 – 15.40 – Mares’ Hurdle latest odds and tips
March 17 – 13.20 – Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle latest odds and tips
March 17 – 13.55 – Festival Novices’ Chase latest odds and tips
March 17 – 15.05 – Queen Mother Champion Chase latest odds and tips
March 17 – 16.50 – Champion Bumper latest odds and tips
March 18 – 13.20 – Marsh Novices’ Chase latest odds and tips
March 18 – 14.30 – Ryanair Chase latest odds and tips
March 18 – 15.05 – Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle latest odds and tips
March 19 – 13.20 – Triumph Hurdle latest odds and tips
March 19 – 14.30 – Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle latest odds and tips
March 19 – 15.05 – Gold Cup latest odds and tips
March 19 – 16.15 – Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase
CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL DAY ONE SCHEDULE
13:20 – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 87y
13.55 – Arkle Chase (Grade 1) 1m 7f 199y
14.30 – Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 3m 1f
15.05 – Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 87y
15.40 – Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 3f 200y
16.15 – Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3) 2m 87y
16.50 – National Hunt Chase (Grade 2) 3m 5f 201y
*Paddy will be all over your telly box throughout the Cheltenham Festival sponsoring ITV’s live coverage from Prestbury Park – and you can get free and exclusive tipping columns EVERY DAY from Ruby Walsh, Matt Chapman and Mick Fitzgerald here on PP News.
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