Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante features among 17 entries for the G1 Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday, November 28.
The two-mile highlight is the first G1 hurdle race of the Jump season in Britain and carries a total prize fund of £80,000.
Epatante, who is the 8/11 with favourite with Betfair, is reportedly on course to begin her campaign at Newcastle and will be aiming to give trainer Nicky Henderson a sixth win in the race.
Henderson’s previous winners have included fellow Champion Hurdle scorers Punjabi (2008) and Buveur D’Air (2017 & 2018). Interestingly, the master of Seven Barrows has also entered Marie’s Rock, the winner of a bumper and two hurdle races from as many starts.
Cornerstone Lad (Micky Hammond) caused a 16/1 shock in last year’s Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle, when he edged out hot favourite Buveur D’Air and Silver Streak (Evan Williams) in a thrilling finish.
Cornerstone Lad has had two starts on the Flat in preparation for his title defence, most recently making all to win a 14-furlong handicap at Redcar on November 3.
Five horses have won back-to-back runnings of the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle, though Buveur D’Air was the first to do so since Dato Star (1998 & 1999).
Middleham trainer Micky Hammond said of the six-year-old: “Cornerstone Lad is in great form and firmly on course for the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
“It was fantastic to win the race last year and it gave us one of the biggest days in my training career.
“After the Fighting Fifth, we are strongly considering going over fences with him. That is something we will discuss more after the Fighting Fifth, but that is currently the way we are leaning.
“He had a lovely summer out in the paddocks and then came back and has already had two spins on the Flat.
“He ran really well at Redcar in October to be fourth and then I was delighted with his latest effort earlier this month. Those two runs have left him spot on for the Fighting Fifth and he is primed to go.
“We are aware that he will be taking on more top-class opposition, but it is lovely to have a horse like him in the yard and we are looking forward to trying to defend his crown.”
Star four-year-old Goshen has also run twice on the Flat this autumn, latterly finishing third in a handicap at Goodwood on October 11. Gary Moore’s stable star looked set for a very impressive victory until unseating his rider at the last in the G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle, his most recent start over obstacles.
G1 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle second Abacadabras (Gordon Elliott) and Jason The Militant (Henry de Bromhead) are among three Irish-trained entries. They finished second and third respectively behind Aspire Tower in the G2 WKD Hurdle at Down Royal on October 30.
Wind surgery coupled with a return to hurdling has breathed a new lease of life into Sceau Royal (Alan King). The eight-year-old defeated Ballyandy (Nigel Twiston-Davies) in the Welsh Champion Hurdle limited handicap at Ffos Las on October 18 and impressed again with a smooth success in the G2 Elite Hurdle at Wincanton on November 7.
Ribble Valley (Nicky Richards) is another who underwent wind surgery during the summer. He made light work of the opposition in an intermediate hurdle at Carlisle on October 22, his fifth win from seven career starts. Richards won the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle with The French Furze in 2003. Famously, The French Furze ran in the race every year from 2000 to 2007 and is commemorated with the Sky Sports Racing Sky 415 'The French Furze' Novices' Hurdle on the same day.
Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle - Betfair prices:
7/1 Abacadabras, Sceau Royal
10/1 Silver Streak
11/1 Ribble Valley
12/1 Cornerstone Lad
14/1 Song For Someone
20/1 Main Fact, Marie’s Rock, Not So Sleepy
33/1 Jason The Militant
80/1 Solo Saxophone
100/1 Millers Bank
150/1 Voix Du Reve
Betfair Spokesman, Barry Orr, commented: “It is a strong list of entries headed by the reigning Champion Hurdler and we know Nicky Henderson likes to target this race with his crack two milers, so it’s no surprise to see Epatante head the betting at 8/11.
“National Hunt fans will be excited to see Goshen again over hurdles after two, somewhat, underwhelming performances on the flat, but Gary Moore is sure to have him in tip top shape for this historic race and he is the clear second favourite at 11/2."