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Cheltenham 2020 day one: Hot tips as Epatante fancied for the Champion Hurdle


Powering on: Barry Geraghty has the Champion Hurdle on Epatante in his sights

Powering on: Barry Geraghty has the Champion Hurdle on Epatante in his sights

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Sharjah could challenge

Sharjah could challenge

�INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Powering on: Barry Geraghty has the Champion Hurdle on Epatante in his sights

The long wait is finally over for punters as the Cheltenham Festival rolls around once again and the action commences at the Cotswolds today, with all eyes on the Champion Hurdle.

The race is always the highlight of day one, and while today's two-mile showpiece may not have the star names which have become the norm in recent years, it is still full of intrigue.​

Nicky Henderson is already the most successful trainer in the race's history and eyes a great eighth, with Epatante leading a four-pronged attack from the master trainer.​

Should Darver Star prevail, it would be one of the great rags-to-riches stories, with Gavin Cromwell's charge graduating from modest handicap hurdles nearly a year ago to chase this €550,000 prize.​

1.30pm Grade One Supreme Novices' Hurdle 2m1/2f

The temptation can always be to get overly excited in the opener, but this is a marathon not a sprint, and caution is advised.​

Everywhere you look there is quality and, while Willie Mullins has scored in four of the last seven renewals and got punters off to a flyer, it's hard to be too confident in the front-running Closutton No.1 Asterion Forlonge given the standard of the opposition. Owner Joe Donnelly has the luxury of having two leading chances, with Nicky Henderson's Shishkin also carrying his black and white colours having looked impressive on his two completed starts after he fell on debut.​

Colin Tizzard's Fiddlerontheroof is a more confident selection having oozed class when landing the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle last time out.​

Robbie Power's mount will love this speed test and should not be found wanting up the Hill, while Henry de Bromhead's Captain Guinness is one which may surprise a few people at bigger odds.​

Verdict: Fiddlerontheroof can upset the favourites.

2.10pm Grade One Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase 2m

Mullins has landed this contest in four of the last five years and relies on Cash Back, which threw it down to De Bromhead's Notebook last time out and just came up short. That pair renew acquaintances but Notebook should have the upper hand again.​

Joseph O'Brien's Fakir D'oudairies is a phenomenal jumper but couldn't match strides with Notebook at Christmas - when in receipt of 7lbs which he won't get today - and while freshened up for this, others are preferred at bigger prices.​

Preference is for Maire Banrigh (e/w), unbeaten in her last seven starts including four over fences. A classy type open to huge improvement, the receipt of 7lbs is another big plus and she can finish in the top three for brothers Dan and Harry Skelton.​

Verdict: Maire Banrigh (e/w) can upset the odds.​

2.50pm Grade Three Ultimate Handicap Chase 3m1f

There has been no Irish winner of this contest in the last decade and the visitors' chances look slim with just two runners in a packed field of 23.​

Paul Nolan's Discorama has been runner-up at the last two Festivals and shouldn't be discounted to make the frame.

Gordon Elliott's Elwood really looks up against it and this should go the way of the home team, with the classy Vinndication selected to score in a race where punters have traditionally struggled.​

Verdict: Vinndication can see it through.

3.30pm Grade One Unibet Champion Hurdle 2m1/2f

All the talk is of the most open Champion Hurdle in recent memory but the one horse that shines brighter than the rest in terms of class and raw potential is six-year-old Epatante.​

The only blip on her record since joining Henderson is a flop at the Festival 12 months ago.​

The 7lbs mares allowance is a huge advantage, as is her fondness for the testing conditions, and Barry Geraghty can steer her to success.​

Stablemate Pentland Hills, last year's Triumph Hurdle winner, has had a wind operation but is hard to fancy based on recent form, while Willie Mullins' Cilaos Emery is unlikely to be up to this level having switched from fences recently.​ Three-time Grade One winner Sharjah may prove to be the Mullins' number one if the ground isn't bottomless.

Verdict: Epatante is best solution to the Champion Hurdle riddle.

4.10pm Grade One Close Bros Mares' Hurdle 2m4f

Were it not for a final-hurdle fall in last year's renewal, Benie Des Dieux would be bidding for a hat-trick and Mullins' brilliant mare can make amends in an intriguing affair.​

The decision to run Honeysuckle in this contest rather than the earlier Champion Hurdle ensures one of the duels of the week, and De Bromhead's six-year-old is a worthy opponent after her success in the Irish Champion Hurdle.​

Mullins rates her as one of the best mares he has had and she wowed at Gowran Park in January.​ Her French Champion Hurdle victory in May is easily the best form available and she can get the job done with stablemate Stormy Ireland a confident each-way alternative.​

Verdict: Benie Des Dieux can prove best once again.​

4.50pm Listed Northern Trust Nov Handicap Chase 2m4f

This is a real head-scratcher for punters as it's very hard to be too confident in any of the 20 runners given their dearth of chasing experience.​

English trainers have dominated this contest with eight of the last 10 winners and they should hold the key once again, with Bailey's Imperial Aura running a cracker when second here in January.​

Elliott's Galvin has been laid out for the race but inexperience in big-field handicaps may catch him out, and Mick Channon's hugely progressive Hold The Note is tipped to score under Jonathan Burke.​

Verdict: Hold The Note can hold the key for punters.​

5.30pm Grade Two National Hunt Cup Nov Chase 3m6f

Formerly known as the four-miler and restricted to amateur riders only, many punters are likely to side with Carefully Selected for Team Mullins.​

Patrick Mullins has already won this race twice and bids to go one better than his father Willie with a third victory in what is usually an open betting heat. However, a lot of the leading challengers have fallen away in recent weeks to leave Carefully Selected as hot favourite.​

With sketchy jumping and stamina doubts on his first test beyond three miles, the eight-year-old has to be taken on despite the connections.​

Crack amateurs Derek O'Connor and Jamie Codd also have two victories in this contest and should be given great respect, with O'Connor riding James Nash's Forza Milan and Codd aboard Elliott's Ravenhill, second in the Kerry National on his penultimate start before falling in the Troytown.​ Lord Du Mesnil is likely to enjoy conditions most, however, and the stout stayer has more chasing experience than his rivals.​

Verdict: Lord Du Mesnil can land the finale.

Belfast Telegraph