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Epatante and Zanahiyr lock horns in fascinating Aintree Hurdle

After playing second and third fiddle respectively to the brilliant Honeysuckle at Cheltenham last month, Epatante and Zanahiyr look set to battle it out for top honours in Betway Aintree Hurdle.

Ultimately neither could lay a glove on Henry de Bromhead’s superstar mare in the Champion Hurdle just over three weeks ago, but they justifiably dispute favouritism for Thursday’s joint feature.

Having won and finished third and second in the last three renewals of Cheltenham’s two-mile hurdling championship, Epatante tests the water over two and a half miles for the first time on Merseyside.

Like everyone else, trainer Nicky Henderson is somewhat in the dark over the trip for his dual Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdle heroine, but is hopeful.

He told Sky Sports Racing: “She’s had a tremendous year, but the one question here is the trip. It’s her first run over it and we’re going to have to take that on trust.

“She’s done nothing wrong, she halved the Fighting Fifth (dead-heated with Not So Sleepy) and then won the Christmas Hurdle where she was very impressive.

“She ran a great race in the Champion Hurdle, the mistake at the last didn’t cost her in the end as she finished second and wouldn’t have won.

“She’s in very good form and I’m thinking and hoping – if she stays, she wants to go to sleep and wait and wait and wait.

“I asked Nico (de Boinville) after the Christmas Hurdle if she’d stay two and a half as I was half thinking of the Mares’ Hurdle for her, but he said ‘no’.

“On the other hand two and a half at Aintree is different to two and a half around Cheltenham, as it doesn’t put an enormous premium on stamina.”

Zanahiyr in action at Down Royal
Zanahiyr in action at Down Royal (Brian Lawless/PA)

Gordon Elliott believes the extra distance could help Zanahiyr, who would not be winning out of turn after four successive placed efforts in Grade One company.

“The step up in trip will definitely suit us. Obviously, you never know with these horses coming back from Cheltenham so quickly, but he seems in good form and he’s well,” said Elliott.

“I thought it was a career-best last time and he is improving.”

Paul Nicholls saddles both two previous course winners in McFabulous and Monmiral.

He told Betfair: “The plan was to take McFabulous to Cheltenham for the Coral Cup but we changed our mind when the rain arrived in torrents on the day.

“So I’ve kept him fresh for the Aintree Hurdle and the trip of two and a half miles looks ideal. We are hoping cheekpieces first time can bring out a bit more improvement.

“It’s never easy for a juvenile in his second season and Monmiral has had a frustrating campaign after picking up a nasty injury in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle.

“He was on the easy list for a while so we knew he wasn’t quite ready in the National Spirit at Fontwell where he travelled keenly and jumped really well until blowing up going to the final flight. That was a stepping-stone towards Aintree and he is much sharper now.

“Monmiral looked so good in victory at this meeting last year and while on ratings he needs to improve, I’m sure he will appreciate the step up in trip.”

Glory And Fortune (Tom Lacey) and Guard Your Dreams (Nigel Twiston-Davies) are the other hopefuls.

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