Cheltenham Countdown: Epatante effortless in Betfair Fighting Fifth but Festival rivals showed their mettle

Epatante
Epatante - back in style at Newcastle

David Cleary casts his eye over a host of 2020 Festival scorers returning over the last week, starting with three winning mares from Cheltenham in March...

"The Aga Khan's 'Z' family, which goes all the way back to Petite Etoile's daughter Zahra, foaled in 1974, has already produced quite a few notable jumpers - one or two of the Flat runners were half-decent as well - and there are two Triumph Hurdle winners in Zaynar and Zarkandar amongst them. Zanahiyr already looks to have good claims to be a third."

A week that threw up no end of impressive performances left the main question a word short of the witches' query in Macbeth: 'When shall we three meet?' might well be the refrain for the trio of victorious mares from last season's Cheltenham Festival who all made taking reappearances in separate races over the weekend. All three would be plausible candidates for the Champion Hurdle, but at least one and perhaps two may well end up in the Mares' Hurdle. Fingers crossed.

The reigning champion Epatante won the Betfair Fighting Fifth at Newcastle as effortlessly as you like, though her task was eased by the antics of Not So Sleepy, who put the breaks on and decanted his rider at the first and took out Epatante's main rival Silver Streak at the second. Epatante ought to have won as she did, given the opposition that remained, but at least it was a statement of her well being with tougher targets ahead.

Concertista and Honeysuckle rise to the challenge

Over at Fairyhouse, Concertista, who won the Dawn Run back in March, and the 2020 Mares' Hurdle winner Honeysuckle were in action on successive days, both over nearly two and a half miles, though both races were highly tactical and tested speed more than stamina.

Concertista faced the easier task, in a graded mares hurdle on Saturday, and probably didn't have to better the form she showed when a wide-margin winner at Cheltenham, but she showed bags of pace under a cute ride from Paul Townend. Five were still well grouped approaching two out, but Concertista jumped to the front at the last and won with quite a bit up her sleeve. She would have no trouble at all in dropping back to two miles and it would be good to see her in the Grade 1 at the trip at Leopardstown after Christmas.

Honeysuckle landed the odds in the Hatton's Grace for the second year in a row, like the other two mares mentioned not needing to improve on her best form to score with something to spare. The Hatton's Grace was a mess of a race, a sprint from approaching two out, and the riders on some of the beaten runners might reflect that a tactical plan B would have shown their mounts to better effect, runner-up Ronald Pump in particular compromised by pace and position.

Whether Honeysuckle's speed would have seen her get the better of Epatante or Concertista in a similar race is open to question and her presence in the Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown might well provide an answer. Epatante is the one in possession, but Concertista makes real appeal as one likely to give her a serious race, if allowed, come March.

Monkfish and Thyme on the menu for Cheltenham

The Hatton's Grace might not have been so much of a speedfest had Fury Road not been a late withdrawal. He looked a really interesting runner, given how well the form of last season's Albert Bartlett has been shaping up. Although there might be slight concerns about the form of the race overall, the first four all look potentially top notch, and the winner and third made really encouraging starts to their campaigns.

The third Thyme Hill landed a strong renewal of the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury on Friday, where the past two winners of the Stayers' Hurdle were behind him. This was another tactical race, run in a significantly slower time than the following handicap, but the first three are likely better in relation to those behind than anything else.

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Thyme Hill got the better of the 2019 Stayers' Hurdle winner Paisley Park, the latter conceding weight and not looking so well tuned-up beforehand. With Thyme Hill at an earlier point in his career, it is hard to say which of them would come out on top in a rematch, no real surprise that there is little between them at the head of the Stayers' Hurdle market.

The third home McFabulous travelled as well as the winner - Paisley Park as usual came off the bridle when the tempo lifted before finishing strongly - but he didn't seem to see out the three miles. Given this wasn't a particularly stiff test at the trip, McFabulous seems likely to be dropped back in trip, with the Aintree Hurdle rather than a trip to Cheltenham on the agenda.

The Albert Bartlett winner Monkfish began his journey to the ex-RSA Chase by landing prohibitive odds in a beginners chase at Fairyhouse. He jumped solidly and seemingly wasn't out of second gear, though the trio that tried to go with him in the last mile were clearly running on empty by the straight, dropping away to finish third, fourth and fifth. Monkfish is a proper chaser on looks and is set to go a long way this winter.

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By chance, the two other novice hurdle winners from the Cheltenham Festival were also in action over the last seven days. Neither Shishkin, who had a nice schooling round at Kempton, nor Envoi Allen, who landed a Grade 1 disguised as a glorified gallop at Fairyhouse, had to show anything like the extent of their abilities. That said, Envoi Allen toyed with the opposition in the Drinmore, the runner-up upsides briefly before the second last with the other pair close behind, before he quickened away to win with loads to spare. Where Envoi Allen goes ultimately is the largest piece in the jigsaw, so far as the Arkle and the Marsh/Golden Miller are concerned, the latter the option, judged by current Betfair markets.

Zanahiyr looks Triumph material

One last performance at Fairyhouse to mention before a quick round-up of the British action, and that is the victory of Zanahiyr in the graded juvenile hurdle. This was a powerful performance, built on slick, economical jumping, that had Triumph Hurdle written all over it. Although the race was effectively a match, the dual French winner Saint Sam sent off favourite ahead of Zanahiyr, it was a well-run race, the pace much quicker to three out than the Royal Bond won by Ballyadam, that winner only just at the last when Zanahiyr crossed the line.

The Aga Khan's 'Z' family, which goes all the way back to Petite Etoile's daughter Zahra, foaled in 1974, has already produced quite a few notable jumpers - one or two of the Flat runners were half-decent as well - and there are two Triumph Hurdle winners in Zaynar and Zarkandar amongst them. Zanahiyr already looks to have good claims to be a third.

Newbury's Winter Carnival couldn't quite match Fairyhouse, but there were some performances worth a mention in passing, Bravemansgame impressive in a novice hurdle, Next Destination a taking winner on a belated debut over fences in the John Francome, both likely to be found further good openings by their trainer Paul Nicholls.

Caribean Boy (B- for spelling), a Covid-season novice, was impressive in landing the Berkshire in a good time against one serious rival, but will now need to go into top handicaps or even navigate a path to the Ryanair. He's exciting, no question, and may make that climb to the top.

Finally, the Ladbrokes Trophy. No Cheltenham clues here, though Cloth Cap was superb under Tom Scudamore at his best and, along with the third The Conditional and perhaps even the runner-up Aye Right, next season if not this, look serious Grand National candidates. Vinndication (N+ for spelling) would have been thereabouts had he stood up. The King George, a thin field in prospect, may yet be tempting.

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