Epatante was a comfortable winner of the Champion Hurdle, run on the 69th birthday of her owner, JP McManus, who has now had four consecutive winners of the feature race on the Cheltenham Festival’s opening day. Well supported from the night before and sent off 2-1 favourite, Epatante became an eighth winner of the Champion Hurdle for her trainer, Nicky Henderson.
Owner and trainer expected, at the start of the season, to be here with Buveur D’Air, the champion of 2017 and 2018, but he was injured in November and ruled out for the rest of the season. Epatante revealed herself as a likely successor in the Christmas Hurdle the very next month and built on that promise with a decisive success here over Sharjah and Darver Star.
The race was run from a standing start after an initial false start, something that is already becoming a theme of this Festival, just as it was a year ago. The front-runner Not So Sleepy was one of those disadvantaged thereby and he never got into the argument.
Epatante was settled within hailing distance of the pace, set by Petit Mouchoir and Cornerstone Lad. Barry Geraghty produced her to hit the front at the final hurdle and the mare powered up the famous hill.
“She was always travelling, you were always quite pleased with where she was,” Henderson said. “Barry gave her a beautiful ride. He always had it covered and she has the gears. I must admit I was worried after last year, when she didn’t run well here.”
Geraghty said: “She picked up and won well. She’s flourished from Christmas to today. There is no better trainer of a Champion Hurdler than Nicky Henderson. He’s unbelievable.”
It made for an excellent first day for Henderson, who also landed the Supreme Novice Hurdle with Shishkin. A future chaser, the horse won despite an ominous drift in the betting to 6-1, having been a hot favourite for the race for weeks, and prevailed in a thrilling battle with Abacadabras.