The £80,000 Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle is the first G1 hurdle of the British Jump season and 10 contenders go forward for the two-mile contest at Newcastle on Saturday, November 28, following today’s five-day confirmation stage.
Reigning champion Jump trainer Nicky Henderson has won the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle a record five times courtesy of Landing Light (2001), Punjabi (2008), My Tent Or Yours (2013) and Buveur d'Air (2017, 2018). This year he is set to be represented by six-year-old mare Epatante.
Owned by J P McManus, Epatante has won five of her six outings over hurdles and ended the 2019/20 campaign with a decisive three-length success in the G1 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March. She is a dual G1 heroine, having also taken the G1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park in December, and is the 4/7 market leader with Betfair.
Henderson said today: “I would love nice ground for Epatante and it sounds like that is what we are going to get. She is pretty versatile but by and large we all want good ground for these races as it just makes for better racing. She is a speedy filly and good ground will be ideal.
“Everything has been very good with Epatante. She did her last piece of work this morning with a couple of fillies who are going to run in the Gerry Feilden [Marie’s Rock and Floressa], the race Epatante began in last year. Epatante came into that race off a handicap mark of 137 whereas this year we have got two fillies who are rated in the 140s. She was very impressive in that, but it was a handicap off 137. It was then J P’s idea to run in the Christmas Hurdle which was a huge jump up from an intermediate hurdle straight into a Grade 1 - that was a very good call. She was very impressive at Kempton and then we didn’t run her again before the Champion Hurdle. She has done nothing wrong and was very impressive in both the Christmas Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle.
“Epatante’s work has gone very well. She had a racecourse gallop at Newbury a week ago tomorrow. That went well and she worked very nicely this morning. That is all her serious work done - she will have one go over hurdles during the week and then off she heads up north again. It is always rather sad that the Fighting Fifth clashes with Newbury as they are two big meetings and two big races, so we are basically in two places at once.
“Aidan Coleman was going to ride her in the gallop at Newbury last Tuesday. I won’t go into the details of it, but the day before, Newbury was deemed to be a race meeting so the jockeys were not allowed to ride at Newbury and at a race meeting in the afternoon. That meant he couldn’t ride her at Newbury. Aidan won the Gerry Feilden on her anyway last year. He is due to come and sit on her and jump five hurdles tomorrow morning - that is the plan. I am hoping he is alright as he had a nasty fall earlier.
“I do like the Fighting Fifth. The timing is good for us really. It is good timing for the Christmas Hurdle too, whereas the International Hurdle at Cheltenham comes too close. If you are going down the Christmas Hurdle route like we are, it suits.
“Epatante has a lot of pace. She will need it. I was not sure what was going to come into the race. We were thinking Gary Moore’s horse Goshen would be there to guarantee a really truly run race. He isn’t there now, but Not So Sleepy is and we know he goes a right good gallop so there is going to be no hanging around.
“It will be a proper race. Epatante has done plenty of work and they will go a good pace. We are up and ready for it. It has been a good race to us with the exception of last year. We might also have two runners in the Rehearsal Chase with the ground being good.
“I think there are plenty of pretenders for the Champion Hurdle - there always are. Our route will be the same. It would again be the same timetable, as last year she started in the Gerry Feilden on a Friday and now she starts in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle on a Saturday. Then you come into Christmas and then if all went well, we wouldn’t run again before the Champion Hurdle. Hopefully, sometime after Christmas Buveur D’Air slots into the equation.
“The Fighting Fifth last year was not a good expedition as Buveur D’Air got this piece of hurdle wedged under his foot right under the hoof. They had to take all of the hoof off to get all the pieces out. He is coming along in good form and is very well. We are very pleased with his progress. The vets in Ireland did a fantastic job and he looks terrific.
“Buveur D’Air has used the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown which he has won before. It is barely a Listed race, but it is at the right time, at the right place and it slots in very well. He would be ready before that all being well. He still has a long way to go and to prove himself. As he has got this far, we have probably overcome it, but it is all one step at a time.
“Buveur D’Air was a very good horse and he was unlucky not to complete his Champion Hurdle hat-trick when he fell. Life hasn’t always been that easy for him. He has had his blips, but then he came back that year and was very good at Punchestown - it was just very unlucky what happened last year."
The 5/1 second favourite with Betfair is Sceau Royal (Alan King). The eight-year-old has reverted to hurdling this season and won both his starts impressively with victories in the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las and G2 Elite Hurdle at Wincanton. Sceau Royal is owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, who will be hoping for a quickfire G1 double following Bristol de Mai’s third victory in the G1 Betfair Chase at Haydock Park on November 21.
Silver Streak (Evan Williams) also comes into the race with good recent form, having taken a Listed contest at Kempton Park in October. The eight-year-old finished third in last season’s Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
The 2019 Betfair Fighting Firth Hurdle saw Cornerstone Lad (Micky Hammond) cause a 16/1 upset as he defeated Buveur D'Air by a short head. He is set to take his chance again on Saturday before embarking on a chasing career.
Other interesting contenders include the potentially unexposed Ribble Valley (Nicky Richards), a very comfortable winner at Carlisle last month, and Not So Sleepy (Hughie Morrison), successful in the G3 Betfair Exchange Trophy at Ascot in December and a close fourth when last seen on the Flat at Newmarket in the Cesarewitch Handicap.
Betfair Spokesman, Barry Orr, commented today: “It is no surprise that the reigning Champion Hurdler Epatante heads the betting at 4/7 and she is sure to be a very warm order with punters.
“Sceau Royal is looking to give his owners a famous double following Bristol de Mai winning the Betfair Chase and he is 5/1 second favourite.”
The Betfair Fighting Fifth -Betfair Odds: 4/7 Epatante, 5/1 Sceau Royal, 11/2 Silver Streak, 8/1 Ribble Valley, 10/1 Cornerstone Lad, 20/1 Marie’s Rock, Not So Sleepy, 80/1 Solo Saxophone, 100/1 Millers Bank, 150/1 Voix De Reve
The seven-race card at Newcastle on Saturday runs from 11.45am to 3.15pm, with the supporting action headed by the £50,000 Listed Betfair Exchange Rehearsal Chase (3.15pm, 23 entries) over three miles.
The going at Newcastle is currently Good.
Clerk of the Course James Armstrong said today: “The forecast is for a predominantly dry week with the odd shower. Some rain is forecast for tomorrow but is only expected to be a millimetre or two.
“At this stage, I would say we should have Good or Good to Soft ground on Saturday. It is not looking like the really testing ground we have seen for some previous renewals of the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle.”