Cheltenham 2021 Preview Night

Weatherbys Racing Bank

Henderson retains faith in Epatante ahead of Champion Hurdle defence

Champion trainer Nicky Henderson reported the reigning Champion Hurdler, Epatante, to be ‘as good, if not better than last year’ during the inaugural Weatherbys Racing Bank Virtual Cheltenham Preview Evening.

Henderson was joined by the legendary ex-jockey Barry Geraghty, multiple festival winning rider Harry Skelton and Paul Ferguson, author of the Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide.

Proceedings were expertly chaired by ITV Racing’s lead commentator, Richard Hoiles, and guests were treated to expert analysis of all the Grade 1 races.

Highlight Video

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Champion Hurdle

The feature race on the opening day is the Champion Hurdle, a race Henderson is hoping to win for a ninth time with last year’s winner, Epatante.

After disappointing in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, the Lambourn handler is hoping she can bounce back.

“Quite a lot of our horses weren’t at their best at the time [Christmas].

“She was fantastic in the Fighting Fifth and if we are back to that sort of form, which I think we are, then we just need to eliminate the thoughts of Kempton. I think she’s as good, if not better than last year”.

Geraghty, who rode Epatante to glory 12 months ago, was equally positive about the mare’s chances.

“I saw her during the summer and I couldn’t believe how much she’d improved physically. I think she’s the one to beat because she jumps, she travels and she has plenty of pace. I think Honeysuckle will need very soft ground to show her best.”

Arkle Novices' Chase

Leading jockey Harry Skelton is enjoying a fantastic season, and he and brother Dan approach the Festival with arguably the strongest group they’ve ever had.

They will be hoping to start the week well with Allmankind, a live contender in an ultra-competitive Arkle. Already a Grade 1 winner, Harry is hopeful of a bold showing.

“He’s done nothing wrong since he’s gone over fences and took in a very hard test on his second start at Sandown.

“He’s a hard front-runner but he knows where the line is and he’s strong at the finish as well. We’re under no illusions about the opposition we are taking on, but he’s a Grade 1 winner and we’ll be giving it our best shot.”

Henderson is no stranger to success in this race either, winning it six times, most recently with Altior in 2017, and he saddles the current market leader, Shishkin.

“I admire all three horses and whilst he’s got 10 out of 10 on each of his three starts so far, I don’t think he’s beaten that much. He’s jumped well, travelled well and won very easily, but the other two have been there in a higher grade than we have.”

The Willie Mullins-trained Energumene carries the Irish hopes and Geraghty confirmed he was a huge fan of the horse.

“I sat on him down at Willie’s and he’s a gorgeous horse. He travels brilliantly and I know Shishkin jumps well, but he takes it to another level. I think there’s a lot more improvement to come from him.”

Mares' Hurdle

Roksana is another strong contender for the Skeltons and Harry confirmed she is more likely to line up in the Mares’ Hurdle – a race she fortuitously won two years ago – rather than going for the Stayers’ Hurdle later in the week.

“We fear that in the Stayers’ we’ve got to take on two horses that have beaten us already, so it makes sense to run here.

“If it was soft on the first day it would really suit her, and she’s done absolutely nothing wrong all year.”

Again, the Henderson yard will provide stiff competition with a potentially three-pronged attack. He confirmed that last year’s Coral Cup winner, Dame De Compagnie, would be going back over hurdles, joining Verdana Blue and Floressa.

Champion Chase

The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the feature race on day two, and just like the Arkle, it could be Messrs Henderson, Skelton and Mullins fighting out the finish.

Altior, a four-time festival winner and dual winner of this race, bids to regain the crown he was forced to relinquish 12 months ago due to a last-minute injury.

Henderson reported the 10-year-old to be in rude health and confirmed his stable star will wear cheekpieces for the first time.

“As he’s got a bit older, he’s probably lost a bit of his pace, so it seems the obvious thing to do. He’s just got to be that little bit sharper earlier on in the race, which he wasn’t at Kempton and that wasn’t like him.

“His work’s been great. He had an away day since he didn’t run at Newbury and he’s in great form.”

Skelton and Nube Negra finished ahead of Altior when the pair met at Kempton at Christmas, and Harry is hopeful of another big run.

“We’re very happy with the way he’s come out of that run at Kempton and it was always Dan’s idea to go straight to Cheltenham from there.

“We’ve always believed in him and thought he was a good horse. We couldn’t be happier with him; he’s done everything we’ve asked and any drying of the ground would strengthen his chances.”

Weatherbys Champion Bumper

The Weatherbys Champion Bumper concludes proceedings on day two and despite it being a race traditionally dominated by the Irish, that isn’t going to deter the Skelton’s from running their unbeaten mare, Elle Est Belle.

Harry stated: “She’s had a good break through the winter and physically done very well for it. She’s a mare with a hell of a lot of ability and I really think she can run a big race getting the mares’ allowance”.

Gold Cup

Al Boum Photo will be attempting to win a third successive Gold Cup for Willie Mullins, but Nicky Henderson has two major contenders in the shape of last year’s runner-up Santini, and the RSA winner, Champ.

The latter has taken an unconventional route to the Gold Cup by reappearing at Newbury over two miles, something Henderson hopes won’t result in him being too keen in the race.

“The biggest worry now is getting him to go to sleep after lighting him up over two miles. I’m not worried about stamina, but he needs to switch off early.

“He jumped really well at Newbury and whilst we would have loved to have won, we came away happy”.

Despite only going down by a neck last year, Santini is almost the forgotten horse, but Henderson isn’t discounting him.

“He didn’t have a hard race last time at Sandown. He’s been second in an RSA and second in a Gold Cup, so he clearly likes the place, and he would love some slightly better ground.”

Geraghty also thinks his former boss has a strong hand, stating: “He’s [Al Boum Photo] a good horse but he’s not unbeatable. For me Champ ticks an awful lot of boxes and I think he’s the biggest threat. I also think Santini could run a big race.”

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