Epatante delivers champion performance at Cheltenham

Epatante helps owner JP McManus celebrate his birthday in style

Barry Geraghty aboard Epatante celebrate their victory in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham. Photograph: Simon Cooper/PA Wire.

Barry Geraghty aboard Epatante celebrate their victory in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham. Photograph: Simon Cooper/PA Wire.

 

JP McManus celebrated his 69th birthday with a perfect Unibet Champion Hurdle present from Epatante on Day One of the 2020 Cheltenham festival. No owner has come close to dominating any of Cheltenham’s championship events the way the Irishman has this one and Epatante was McManus’s ninth success in the race.

The 2-1 favourite powered up the hill to put three lengths between her and the 16-1 shot Sharjah with another Irish hope Darver Star in third.

So a race generally assumed to be wide open ultimately had a familiar feel to the result.

Nicky Henderson, earlier a winner in the Supreme with Shishkin, cemented his status as the Champion Hurdle’s most successful trainer with his own haul now just one shy of McManus’s. And Barry Geraghty joined both his old rival Ruby Walsh and Tim Molony as the most successful jockey in the race’s long history with a fourth victory.

The team of jump racing grandees put a stamp of authority on what had been dismissed as an ordinary renewal beforehand with the biggest field for a decade suggesting plenty figured they had a shot. Epatante might have blown her festival lines a year before in a novice event but there never looked like being a repeat this time.

Geraghty’s famed big-race touch was stamped all over the ease with which the favourite travelled through the race. She eased out to challenge Darver Star before the last where Sharjah’s smooth progress from last at the top of the hill briefly caught the eye. But from the last Epatante put the lie to fears about her on the track.

Her victory was a fourth in a row in the race for McManus who scored last year with the ill-fated Espoir D’allen while the dual-winner Buveur D’air is on the injury sidelines.

“So this (Epatante) should have been his third-string. Fair play to JP. You know what he puts into it (the sport,”) Henderson said. “I was always pleased with where she was. Barry gave her a beautiful ride, he always just had it covered.”.

The Irish jockey commented: “She’s really filled the void. JP could have had last year’s winner and a previous two-time winner yet through one thing or another neither were here. Yet he’s still won it. He deserves it - he puts so much into the game.”

Epatante, ridden by Barry Geraghty, on their way to winning the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham festival. Photograph: Simon Cooper/PA Wire.
Epatante, ridden by Barry Geraghty, on their way to winning the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham festival. Photograph: Simon Cooper/PA Wire.

Sharjah’s jockey Patrick Mullins was left wondering if better ground might have helped him become the first amateur to win in 38 years.

“Down the back straight he wasn’t in love with the ground but once I pulled him out and he started to pass horses he began to enjoy himself.

“Running down to the last for about 10 strides I thought we might win. But I knew I needed them to stop in front. The mare was the only one who picked up,” he said.

After a pre-festival scare last week when she was reported to have coughed at Henderson’s yard, Epatante becomes just the fifth mare to win the Champion Hurdle.

It means a singular place in the McManus roll of honour as the only one of her sex among the nine.

Henderson’s opening day double was initiated by Shiskhin who eventually overcame various problems to edge Gordon Elliott’s Abacadabras by a head.

The winner’s McManus-owned stable companion Chantry House was third but it was another McManus runner Elixir D’ainay who almost wound up spoiling the outcome for Henderson.

Elixir D’ainay had been repeatedly hampered through the race by his own stable companion Asterion Forlonge jumping right.

At the second last the 9-4 favourite veered dramatically right again and barged into ‘Elixir’ who came down.

The spill hampered the first two and Abacadabras looked to be left in front plenty soon but ultimately it was to Shishkin’s credit that he overcame everything to win.

Considering Henderson had to scratch Altior from Wednesday’s Champion Chase in the morning, it was a welcome change of luck for him and jockey Nico De Boinville.

The latter said: “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But it just shows what a good horse he is and I can’t wait for him to go chasing next season. This was a big relief and great to get on the board, especially after the disappointment of Altior.”

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