Cheltenham Festival day one: A trio of tough mares triumph and Nicky Henderson claims his eighth Champion Hurdle

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  • Top trainer Nicky Henderson enjoyed his eighth victory in the Grade One Unibet Champion Hurdle courtesy of tough mare Epatante today (Tuesday, 10 March) during day one of the Cheltenham Festival.

    The six-year-old daughter of No Risk At All was sent off the 2/1 favourite in the two-mile championship contest, under Barry Geraghty — for whom it was a fourth and record-equalling success in the race.

    The pair beat the Willie Mullins-trained Sharjah by three lengths. Epatante became just the sixth mare to win the Champion Hurdle and the first since Annie Power in 2016.

    “Epatante was always travelling and I was always quite pleased with where she was — Barry gave her a beautiful ride,” said Nicky. “I was worried a bit after last year, when she didn’t run well in the mares’ novice hurdle, she fell to pieces afterwards. She went home to her owner JP McManus’ stud, Martinstown. I sent her there looking awful and she came back looking fantastic, a million dollars.”

    It was a ninth success in the race for the winning owner, in the famous green and gold silks, who was also celebrating his 69th birthday today.

    The winning jockey, Barry Geraghty, added: “I was a little concerned about the ground, I was hoping and praying throughout the race that Epatante would keep travelling for me. In fact, it was the opposite and she was taking on hurdles when I was asking her to pop. She quickened and is just a very smart filly.

    “Nicky has done brilliantly with her, as has Sophie Candy, who looks after her. The mare has improved no end since Christmas, but Sophie has waited on her every day — minding and minding her. It’s that love, care and attention to detail that makes a difference. There is no better trainer of a champion hurdler or any Cheltenham winner than Nicky Henderson — he is unbelievable.”

    Epatante’s victory gave Nicky a 20/1 double on the opening day of the Festival, following Shishkin’s victory in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

    An Arkle-winning mare

    Another mare, Put The Kettle On, was a surprise 16/1 winner of the Grade One Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy for trainer Henry de Bromhead and the Dermody family from Co. Kilkenny.

    The six-year-old was the first mare to triumph in the Arkle since Anaglogs Daughter in 1980, winning by 1½ lengths from Fakir D’oudairies — with Rouge Vif another 18 lengths back in third. The 5/2 favourite and stablemate of the eventual winner, Notebook, was unplaced.

    “Put The Kettle On attacked every fence,” said the winning trainer. “She had course and distance form from last year [she won the Arkle Trial at The November Meeting] so wasn’t to be underestimated. Notebook was our more fancied runner, but this mare keeps improving. For a mare that won a 116-rated beginners’ chase at Kilbeggan, she’s come a long way.”

    The Dermody family bought Put The Kettle On for €20,000 as an unbroken three-year-old.

    “Her name is just something that is commonly said at home,” explained co-owner Mary Dermody. “People come to visit and we say ‘put the kettle on.’ We chose Henry to train for us because he is a winner. I’ve always liked horses and we’ve bred a few, but we’ve never had one as good as this.”

    A fierce battle

    Billed as “one of the races of the week”, the £120,000 Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle did not disappoint as 9/4 shot Honeysuckle defeated Benie Des Dieux in a thrilling renewal of the Grade One contest.

    Honeysuckle, ridden by Rachael Blackmore and trained by Henry de Bromhead, was always prominent in the 2m4f race, staying on gamely in the closing stages. The mare fended off challenges from the Willie Mullins-trained favourite by a half-length.

    Honeysuckle is now unbeaten in eight starts over hurdles and is a four-time Grade One winner.

    “The way she won her maiden hurdle, she looked nice,” said Henry. “We let them try and develop on the track and see if they can work their way up, so you wouldn’t be trying to find out too much at home. She was strongly recommended to us after she won her point-to-point.”

    A first Festival winner

    Eight-year-old gelding The Conditional gave trainer David Bridgwater his first winner at the Festival when taking the Grade Three Ultima Handicap Chase by a neck from Kildisart.

    The son of Kalanisi and 15/2 shot was ridden by Brendan Powell and won the Matchbook Betting Exchange Handicap Chase — over course and distance — in October.

    “I thought we were stuffed at the second-last when the horse pecked, but it’s probably done us a favour because I didn’t want us to hit the front too soon,” said David, who rode five Festival winners as a jockey.

    “He’s a good horse, he’s only a baby and still a novice. We are still learning about him and he is all about next year really. When I bought him from Martin Hassett, I thought he was possibly a long-term Grand National horse, but we’ll see.

    “I’ve always been very lucky here — first as a jockey and then a trainer. I know we haven’t had many bullets to fire at the Festival, but I wouldn’t run a horse that hasn’t got a chance.”

    Don’t miss our full report from the Cheltenham Festival in the 19 March issue of Horse & Hound.

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