Epatante returns to the track in the Fighting Fifth this Saturday and has an opportunity to set the bar for two-mile hurdlers, says Kevin Blake
"Her jumping will also be a focus point, as while she gave glimpses of a slick technique last season, she didn't produce it with as much consistency as one would like from a top-class two-miler."
The Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle takes centre stage at Newcastle on Saturday and is set to play it's now traditional role of giving us our first serious look at some of the most prominent players in the two-mile hurdle division in Great Britain.
In this very column exactly a year ago, the significance of the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle was billed as giving us our first chance of the campaign to assess how much ability was retained by Buveur D'Air, the standard setter in the division.
As it transpired, he met with defeat and suffered a season-ending injury, which threw the division wide open. That setback represented another blow to owner JP McManus' Champion Hurdle hopes just a couple of months after his Champion Hurdle winner Espoir D'Allen had lost his life.
New hope for McManus with Epatante
However, from the fog emerged a new contender for McManus in the somewhat unlikely shape of Epatante. The daughter of No Risk At All had arrived to Nicky Henderson's yard with a big reputation having won a Grade 1 AQPS Flat race when trained in France. She won her first two starts for Henderson in good style, though her free-going ways raised some concerns about how she would cope with the test that the Cheltenham Festival presents in the Mares' Novice Hurdle.
Sent off as the 15/8 favourite for that race and wearing a first-time hood, Epatante settled a bit better, but was ultimately let down by her jumping in the second half of the race and failed to make a serious impression on the leaders. It represented a low note on which to finish her season and not many would have still considered her an exciting prospect after that.
Yet, on the very same day of the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle last year, Epatante returned to action and ran out the impressive winner of a handicap hurdle at Newbury off a mark of 137. Combined with Buveur D'Air's misfortune, this performance served to put Epatante right towards the front end of the queue of potential Champion Hurdle contenders.
She didn't waste any time jumping to the head of that queue, as she took the step up to Grade 1 company in her stride when running out the impressive winner of the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
Her jumping looked slicker than ever on that occasion and in a division that lacked a stand-out star, all of a sudden she was the one that looked to have the x-factor.
The main concern regarding her chance in the Champion Hurdle was that aforementioned failure in the Mares' Novice Hurdle the previous season. However, all such concerns proved to be unfounded. Having settled better than she ever has, she jumped nimbly until a mistake at the third-last flight complicated matters, but she was quickly back on the bridle and took charge of the race up the run-in to prevail by three lengths from Sharjah.
No one could ever claim it was a vintage Champion Hurdle, but the style with which Epatante won it raises hopes that she can be a star that the division so desperately needs.
Will we see any progression?
On paper, Epatante doesn't face a stiff task on her return to action in the Betfair Fighting Fifth on Saturday. Indeed, she is at least 10lb clear of all her rivals based on official ratings. It will however give us an opportunity to see how she has progressed over her summer break and whether she has matured she we last saw her.
Given that she settled quite a bit better in the Champion Hurdle, her supporters will be looking for a repeat of that level of tractability, though it may be ambitious to expect it given she is entitled to be fresh on her seasonal reappearance.
Her jumping will also be a focus point, as while she gave glimpses of a slick technique last season, she didn't produce it with as much consistency as one would like from a top-class two-miler.
Those will be the focus points for the meticulous observer, but for most, just making a winning return to action will be enough from Epatante. There are potentially stiffer challenges ahead for her later in the season, but right now she represents the bar that any that wish to make a claim to her throne have to come up to.
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