Epatante Leads The Way As Mares Take Cheltenham By Storm

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Epatante returns victorious amid a sea of racegoers at Cheltenham | Racing Post

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CHELTENHAM, UK—International Women's Day carried over from Sunday to Tuesday for the curtain up of the Cheltenham Festival at which three of the day's four Grade 1 contests were won by mares bred in Ireland, France and Britain.

Admittedly, one of those races was restricted to mares only but the Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle provided arguably the contest of the day, between the Willie Mullins-trained favourite Benie Des Dieux (Fr) (Great Pretender {Ire}) and Honeysuckle (GB) (Sulamani {Ire}), the headline act in a strong team of jumps mares owned by Kenny Alexander.

The tussle between the two all the way up the hill provided one of the best finishes of the day, with Honeysuckle responding generously to the urgings of the brilliant Rachael Blackmore to remain unbeaten in eight starts under rules. Before that, however, the mare who had stood her ground for the G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle, Epatante (Fr) (No Risk At All {Fr}), delivered a ninth victory in the feature race as a special 69th birthday present for her owner JP McManus and the eighth for trainer Nicky Henderson.

Settled nicely in the middle of the 17-strong field in the early stages, jockey Barry Geraghty squeezed Epatante into an attacking position at the head of the chasing pack behind leaders Petit Mouchoir (Fr) (Al Namix {Fr}) and Darver Star (Ire) (Kalanisi {Ire}) and continued to sit quietly in their slipstream as they turned for home. Finding daylight in the straight, the mare eased to the front with a mighty leap at the last leaving her in front as Sharjah (Fr) (Dr Dino {Fr}) made late headway down the outside. But despite his efforts, Sharjah was still three lengths behind Epatante at the line, with Darver Star holding on for third for Gavin Cromwell, the trainer of last year's winner Espoir d'Allen (Fr).

It was 1985 when Henderson first won the Champion Hurdle with See You Then (GB), who went on to win three in a row. Since then, the trainer has struck with Punjabi (GB), Binocular (Fr) and dual winner Buveur d'Air (Fr), the last two named both also owned by McManus.

“It's a nice race, isn't it? It goes back such a long time since the first one,” said the trainer. “I was worried a bit after last year, when she didn't run well in the mares' novice hurdle, and she fell to pieces afterwards. She went home to [McManus's stud] Martinstown. I sent her there looking awful and she came back looking fantastic, a million dollars.”

He added, “She's as good as she looked the only two times she's run this year. The big worry was when she came here last year and I thought she'd win, and she didn't show up. Sophie Candy rides her every single day of the year, and she deserves great credit.”

Early on Tuesday morning, Henderson had announced that Altior (Ire) (High Chaparral {Ire}), a four-time winner at the Festival, would not run in Wednesday's G1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase for a third time. Over the last four years, the 10-year-old has won the G1 Skybet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, G1 Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase, and is a dual winner of the Champion Chase, but he was found to be lame on Sunday morning.

“We say it every year that something will come up and bite you, and sadly it was Altior that has had to stay at home,” said Henderson.

As the racing gods take away, so they give back, as the Henderson stable won the opening race of the day, the G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, with Shishkin (Ire) (Sholokhov {Ire}), who got the verdict in a head-bobbing finish with Abacadras (Fr) (Davidoff {Ger}), trained by Gordon Elliott.

First blood to the English then, but it wasn't long before Henry de Bromhead, who also celebrated a double on the day, leveled the score.

Ahead of day one, any Festival talk of mares had focused on the clash between Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux or on the chances of Champion Hurdle favourite Epatante. Stealing a march on all of the above, however, was the Put The Kettle On (Ire) (Stowaway {Ire}), who bounced back from a 114-day absence from the racecourse to become the first mare to win the G1 Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase since Anaglogs Daughter (GB) in 1980.

De Bromhead's first-string contender in the race, Notebook (Ger) (Samum {Ger}), was struggling noticeably when asked for an effort by Rachael Blackmore before the runners straightened for home ahead of the second-last fence. He ultimately weakened to finish last of the six finishers while his stablemate plugged on gamely under Aidan Coleman to win by 1½ lengths from the Joseph O'Brien-trained Fakir d'Oudairies (Fr) (Kapgarde {Fr}).

Put The Kettle On's preparation for the Festival was perhaps a little unorthodox, as she had not been seen since winning at Cheltenham back in November, but her consistent form bears close scrutiny as she has won six of her eight starts in the last year.

“Put The Kettle On had course-and-distance form and Notebook didn't really run his race, but she is electric and she just keeps improving. We brought her over and she won her trial and then we thought we'd put her away for the Festival,” said de Bromhead.

Exactly two hours later the trainer was back in the winner's enclosure after Honeysuckle prevailed in one of the most hotly anticipated races of the week.

He said of his unbeaten stable star, “[Honeysuckle] kind of threw herself at the last but she really toughed it out up the hill. Rachael had to sit and suffer a bit and then the gap appeared. Honeysuckle has always looked nice and she was strongly recommended to us after she won her point-to-point. The day she won at Fairyhouse at the start of the season it was really testing ground and she seems to run well on it.”

For Blackmore, it was a third victory at the Festival following a breakthrough year in 2019. De Bromhead added of his stable jockey, “We all know she's brilliant and we feel very lucky to have her.”

If you'd managed to arrive at Prestbury Park for the start of the Cheltenham Festival without listening to or reading any news, it would be easy to believe that all is well with the world. While an increasing number of nations call a halt to public gatherings in the wake of coronavirus, and the smaller world within the racing bubble reels from various revelations about one of the sport's biggest owner/breeders and a major American doping ring, at Cheltenham it was pretty much business as usual.

Yes, the cameraman in the next-door seat in the media centre has a packet of anti-bacterial wipes, and a French friend opted for elbow bumps over a kiss on each cheek, but the French and the Irish are here in their droves, along with the largely tweed-clad natives. The first-day crowd of 60,664 was down, but only by around 7,000 on last year. The organisers of jump racing's annual highlight can relax a little as the first day, at least, has passed without interruption.

 

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