Excitement is building as the Cheltenham Festival is set to get underway on Tuesday, and while this year it will take place behind closed doors, fans and punters alike will still be treated to four days of top-class racing action by tuning in at home.
Of course, the pinnacle of the entire festival is the Gold Cup, which takes place on the fourth and final day of the meeting. But each day, there is one feature race – an event which stands out above the rest – and on the opening day, that is the Champion Hurdle.
The Grade One race completes the prestigious Triple Crown of Hurdling, and while the iconic Cheltenham roar may not descend over Prestbury Park in its usual fashion this year, a place in the winner’s enclosure is still not to be sniffed at. The Cheltenham betting odds have been constantly changing over the past couple of weeks, but we’re now just days away from the festival’s curtain-raiser.
One of the front-runners for success is Epatante, last year’s winner. After the mare successfully won two legs of the Triple Hurdle in 2019/20, she will be looking to do the same in 2020/21, too – having already won the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle last November.
Jockey Barry Geraghty successfully rode Epatante to glory 12 months ago, in what was his final Cheltenham Festival, and he’s backing the mare to retain her Champion Hurdle crown. In a recent show, entitled Cheltenham Rewind, the 43-time Cheltenham winner said: “Epatante can improve. Physically now she’s twice the size (compared to last year). Can she beat Honeysuckle? I fancy her, definitely. But if Honeysuckle gets good ground, I don’t fancy Epatante at all.”
The Nicky Henderson-trained seven-year-old is the current second-favourite in the Champion Hurdle betting market, behind fellow mare, Honeysuckle. And it’s the British-bred, trained by Henry de Bromhead, who is set for the biggest test of her life. Unbeaten in 10 starts, with a debut Cheltenham win at last year’s Festival (in the Mares’ Hurdle), Honeysuckle recently won triumphantly in the Irish Champion Hurdle – finishing some 10 lengths ahead of Abacadabras.
Owner, Kenny Alexander is relishing the battle between his star mare and Epatante, comparing the day one centrepiece with the Champions League: “That (Mares’ Hurdle) was like the Europa League last year, this is the Champions League this time. This is the real deal. I’m excited. A little bit nervous, I guess, but more excited than anything else.”
Previous to last year’s race, Annie Power was the last mare to win the Champion Hurdle, in 2016. The Irish-bred horse trained by Willie Mullins was quite the hurdler – winning 12 of her 14 races, and placing second in another. Of course, the 2015 Mares’ Hurdle will always be remembered for the wrong reasons, as the favourite, with Ruby Walsh in the saddle, fell at the final hurdle – renamed ‘the one that got away’.
It must have been such a relief for Walsh, who rode Annie to victory on the famous turf a year later. The 11-time leading jockey lay claim to an incredible 59 winners at the Cheltenham Festival and in the aforementioned Cheltenham Rewind show, he reminisced on that win: “I thought she was just a hell of a good racehorse. She won in Punchestown, we’d supplemented her, a big conversation.
“Approaching the last you’re thinking, get it up there and it was just pure pleasure. It meant a lot and I got a hell of a lot of pleasure out of that race.”
And so, we look forward to a packed programme at Cheltenham – starting on Tuesday. Victory for Epatante would see her join an elite list of winners who’ve won the Champion Hurdle back-to-back, while her fellow mares will look to make the archives, in becoming the fifth to win the centrepiece in the race’s history.