Epatante lands big gamble in Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham Festival | Sport

Two of jumping’s great survivors combined to devastating effect in the Champion Hurdle here on Tuesday as the mare Epatante gave Nicky Henderson his eighth win in the race, 35 years after the first, with the 40-year-old Barry Geraghty holding her reins. Epatante, too, had survived a scare after suffering from a cough at the weekend, but once racing she travelled effortlessly throughout and sealed the win with a quicksilver jump at the last.

Cheltenham was not so much in a different era as a different world when See You Then won the first of three Champion Hurdles in 1985. Countless National Hunt training careers have waxed and waned since but Henderson is still at the summit of his sport, and here at the Festival above all: Epatante’s win, completing a double after Shishkin’s success in the opening race, took him back in front of Willie Mullins in the all-time list for Festival winners after falling one behind last year.

Geraghty, meanwhile, has broken all four of his limbs at various stages in his 23-year riding career, and has said that his most recent broken leg, sustained in a shocking fall at Aintree’s Grand National meeting last year, was the worst of the lot. But the guarantee of big-race action that comes with his job as first jockey to JP McManus has so far pushed any serious thoughts about retirement to one side.

Epatante could well be a horse to keep him in the saddle for a year or two yet. Any doubts about her ability to handle the track after a disappointing run when favourite for the Mares’ Novice Hurdle last year were dispelled and she won so comfortably that it is easy to imagine her becoming Henderson’s third multiple winner of this race, after See You Then and Buveur D’Air. She was strongly supported beforehand and set off as the 2-1 favourite, and some of her backers at least will be tempted to play up their winnings at the 5-1 available for next year’s Champion.

“I thought after riding Chantry House [to finish third] in the first race that the ground would be too slow for her and she would struggle,” Geraghty said. “I was worried about it all week yet every step of the way, she was a dream. We missed one or two [hurdles] just because she was wanting to get on with it and trying to take them on, so I was always trying to keep a lid on her.

“I needed to cover [the eventual third] Darver Star coming down the hill and I was just happy to play her late. She quickened and she is just a very smart filly.

“She got lit up on the day last year when we put a hood on her [and] she ran with the choke out. We plugged her ears today and she settled lovely and travelled sweetly. There are always a lot of decisions to be made in the run-up to a race and thankfully they went right, as they can often go wrong.”

Nicky Henderson at the presentation ceremony after victory with Epatante in the the Champion Hurdle.

Nicky Henderson at the presentation ceremony after victory with Epatante in the the Champion Hurdle. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

A spell at McManus’s Martinstown stud last summer also benefited Epatante, who “fell to pieces” after her first Festival experience, according to Henderson. “I sent her there looking awful and she came back looking fantastic,” the trainer said. “She was always travelling [today], Barry always just had it covered and she has the gears.

“It was a very open race and the door was open for someone to say ‘I’m the champ’, and I think she has done that. She is not going to go jumping fences, I should think Punchestown [in April] would be a possibility then back to Martinstown for another holiday and hopefully back here this time next year.”

McManus, who was celebrating his 69th birthday, has now seen his colours land this race a remarkable nine times, and six since 2010. Geraghty has now reached 39 Festival winners, second in the all-time list behind Ruby Walsh and top among current riders following the latter’s retirement last April, while Henderson’s status at the all-time top trainer survived for at least another day when two Mullins-trained odds-on favourites, Benie Des Dieux and Carefully Selected, both failed to justify their starting prices later on the card.

Mullins also supplied the runner-up in the Champion Hurdle as Sharjah, ridden by his son Patrick, finished strongly on ground that was much slower than he prefers, while his stable companion, Cilaos Emery, ¬was sent off second-favourite but never threatened to take a hand in the closing stages on the way to a fourth-place finish.

Mullins has more big chances on Wednesday’s card, including Chacun Pour Soi in the Champion Chase, from which Henderson was forced to scratch Altior on Tuesday due to lameness. But if it seemed 12 months ago that Mullins might clear away from Henderson in the all-time standings after edging in front, the great survivor clearly has other ideas.

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