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Positives should outweigh the negatives for Henderson star

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Henderson’s Epatante should make light work of ‘pudding-ey’ ground

Henderson’s Epatante should make light work of ‘pudding-ey’ ground

SPORTSFILE

Henderson’s Epatante should make light work of ‘pudding-ey’ ground

It says something about the nature of the build-up to the Cheltenham Festival that the ante-post market attracting the most money has been whether jump racing's biggest fixture will actually take place.

A tipping of the cap may be the in-vogue greeting as people, many of whom will not have seen each other for 361 days, are discouraged from handshakes and kissing for fear of contracting coronavirus.

The stands will be packed as always but it would be an unwise bookmaker who pays out on the meeting going ahead until the starter actually drops the flag for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle at 1.30pm today.

However, after all the will-it-won't-it chat, relief that the meeting is finally over the start line means the famous roar of approval, which traditionally greets the Festival's first race, could be louder than normal.

Yesterday, even the reclusive sun made a guest appearance as Ireland's big three trainers, Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead, exercised their first wave of arrivals before breakfast.

Thus far, it has not been a vintage year for the two-mile hurdling division but, no doubt, a star will emerge from today's Unibet Champion Hurdle, one of the most open editions for years.

Foolhardy

It would be foolhardy to discount any of the 17 runners as a complete no-hoper but, even though they are all fairly closely matched and the race looks ripe for an upset and for some long shots to finish in the money, I expect that the 7lb mares' allowance for Epatante will swing it for the favourite.

She looked a class act at Kempton in the Christmas Hurdle when she beat last year's Champion Hurdle third, Silver Streak, by five lengths. She is all speed and, though the ground, which I would describe unofficially as "pudding-ey" might not play to that strength, she is a light-framed mare and might skip over it as well as any.

The positives seem to outscore the negatives, which are that she gave a few coughs 10 days ago and that her only defeat since joining the trainer from France two seasons ago was in the mares' hurdle here last year when she finished only ninth.

She did not get the run of the race that day, made a mistake at a crucial moment and the jockey felt she resented the hood, which is now off.

I have always had a bit of a soft spot for Nicky Henderson's Pentland Hills, which, essentially, came to the Triumph Hurdle last year to give his multitude of owners a day out - only to go and win it. But he has not looked quite so simple this year and five-year-olds traditionally find the Champion too much.

That could also apply to Henderson's third runner, Fusil Raffles, which Daryl Jacob has chosen over Call Me Lord on their home work, ignoring the fact that he pulled up last time.

There should be plenty of pace on, with Not So Sleepy, something of a character, in the field. He only has one gear and, while a lot of horses will demonstrate to their trainer if they are in great form, he gives his trainer Hughie Morrison no clues.

"I couldn't really tell you whether he'll be pulling up at halfway or leading over the last," Morrison said.

Other unfashionable horses which could run a big race at a big price are Ballyandy, Silver Streak and Cornerstone Lad. Petit Mouchoir, never been out of the first four in three Festival starts, is the pick of the Irish.

It may be that if the Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle lives up to its billing, it overshadows the Champion as a contest. It boasts the Irish mares, Benie Des Dieux, unbeaten apart from falling at the last in this race last year when in command, and the unbeaten Honeysuckle, the mount of Rachael Blackmore, as well as the versatile British mare, Lady Buttons.

Honeysuckle, which I take to defeat the favourite, has beaten a better class of opponent this season, while Benie Des Dieux has beaten lesser rivals a long way.

Many will be expecting Blackmore to open her account in the Racing Post Arkle on Notebook, but his trainer, De Bromhead, has a slight question mark over the ground for the strapping, big chaser.

That might enable Fakir D'oudairies to reverse the form with Notebook, which beat him by a length on decent ground at Christmas. Rouge Vif looks the best of the British. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk