Nicky Henderson reports Epatante in “fantastic form” ahead of her bid for a seventh Grade One victory in the Coolmore Kew Gardens Irish EBF Mares Champion Hurdle at Punchestown on Saturday.
The JP McManus-owed eight-year-old can count a Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, two Christmas Hurdles at Kempton and two Fighting Fifths at Newcastle on her illustrious CV.
She was ultimately no match for Honeysuckle when bidding to regain her Champion Hurdle crown in March, but was best of the rest and got back on the winning trail in the Aintree Hurdle three weeks ago.
With that latest success on Merseyside proving she has the stamina to win over two and a half miles, Henderson is hopeful she can crown her campaign with another top-level triumph in Ireland.
He said: “She has had a fantastic season and is in fantastic form – I don’t think I have ever known her in better form.
“She has won three Grade Ones and been second in a Champion Hurdle, so has had a brilliant year and it would be nice to top it off with another win.
“She has been an absolute star and we’re looking forward to seeing what she does at Punchestown.”
Epatante may have most to fear from a fellow Seven Barrows inmate in the form of Marie’s Rock.
The seven-year-old was last seen carrying the Middleham Park Racing colours to Cheltenham Festival glory in the Mares’ Hurdle and connections are anticipating another bold showing.
Middleham Park’s National Hunt racing manager, Tom Palin, said: “She’s won over two and a half miles and she’s a Grade One mare. It’s the right race for Epatante and it’s the right race for Marie’s Rock.
“Not too many of them have run since Cheltenham. Obviously Epatante went to Aintree and we have seen this week those who did that have slightly underachieved as a result of having a busy spring campaign.
“We think Marie’s Rock is in better form than she was going into Cheltenham, actually. She did a piece of work at the weekend and worked great and Nico (de Boinville) is very excited to ride her.
“She only cost €35,000 and she’s the mare of a lifetime really.”
Marie’s Rock renews rivalry with several she faced at Cheltenham, including the third home Mrs Milner, the fourth Stormy Ireland and Telmesomethinggirl, who was still in contention when she was brought down two flights from home.
The latter’s trainer, Henry de Bromhead, said: “Telmesomethinggirl was travelling well and just beginning to make her move when brought down in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham at the second-last.
“Rachael (Blackmore) had nowhere to go and it was a nasty enough fall, but there wasn’t a bother on her after and she’s been good since so we’re looking forward to Saturday and just hoping for a clear run.”
Mrs Milner’s trainer Paul Nolan feels his charge was unfortunate not to make more of a race of it in the Cotswolds after in the same incident.
He said: “She ran a stormer at Cheltenham, where I thought she was unlucky.
“The two mares that fell in that race, Indefatigable and Telmesomethinggirl, were going OK so we don’t know, but she was nearly brought to a standstill and brought out wide as well and I thought that the way she came home, she’d have definitely been fighting out the finish anyway.
“With Epatante running she will definitely have to improve again, but she’s in good form.”
Stormy Ireland is one of four runners for Willie Mullins along with Burning Victory, Shewearsitwell and Dysart Dynamo, with Lorna Fowler’s Politesse completing the field.
The other Grade One on the final day of the Punchestown Festival is the Ballymore Champion Four Year Old Hurdle, for which the Mullins-trained Vauban will be a warm order following an impressive display in the Triumph at Cheltenham.
Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, said: “The good ground will help and he is a horse with a lot of speed. It turned into a bit of a sprint in the Triumph Hurdle and that probably played to his strengths, but for him to be able to miss the last and be able to pick up and run away from the other two, I think he is better than your average Triumph Hurdle winner.
“Hopefully he can back that up, I can’t see any reason why the track or the ground wouldn’t play to his strengths. ”
Gordon Elliott’s Fil Dor has finished second to Vauban on his last two starts and takes him on again.
Joey Logan, racing manager for owners Caldwell Construction Ltd, said: “Fil Dor is very well in himself and in good form.
“A bit of rain would be a help. Of course Willie’s horse is the one they all have to beat, but they have to jump and everything, so we’ll see.
“After Mighty Potter won the Grade One for Andy and Gemma (Brown, owners) on Tuesday, it’s already been a great week for them, but Fil Dor will hopefully run his usual race and if he does, he’ll be in there boxing.”
Nolan is looking forward to saddling HMS Seahorse, who was fourth in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham.
“The false start didn’t help him in the Boodles as a colt and he actually jumped the first hurdle,” the trainer said.
“He has a lot of improving to do though to be competitive in this race. He’s rated 128, so he has more than a stone to find, but he seems to be a consistent sort of a horse.
“He’s after giving his owners a right few days out, been competitive every day so I’m hoping that he’ll improve enough to run a decent race. But to be in with a shout of being in the first three, he’ll have to improve a stone.
“I do think he’ll like the better ground. That means they’re jumping at a faster pace as well so you’d like to feel that he’d be getting away from the back of his hurdles a bit quicker and that will help too.”