Henderson: strong pace and good ground ideal for Epatante in Fighting Fifth

The absence of Goshen may have robbed Saturday's Grade 1 Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle of some interest, but Nicky Henderson still believes it will provide a proper test for Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante – one he is convinced she is fully prepared for.

Owned by JP McManus, Epatante won Newbury's Gerry Feilden off a mark of 137 this time last year before graduating to Grade 1 glory in the Christmas Hurdle and then hurdling's ultimate prize at the Cheltenham Festival.

Now rated 162, she is 4-7 with the sponsors to supply Henderson with a sixth Fighting Fifth and the champion trainer is buoyed by the prospect of a sound surface for the classy mare.

"I'd love nice ground," he said. "I think she's pretty versatile but, by and large, we want good ground for these races. She's a speedy mare and good ground would be ideal.

"She had a gallop at Newbury last week. That went well, while she worked very nicely on Monday morning. That's all of her serious work done and she'll have a pop over hurdles this week."

Aidan Coleman will ride Epatante, who is 7-2 with William Hill to win the Unibet-backed Champion Hurdle again this season, and should have a hot trail to follow at Newcastle.

Henderson added: "She's got a lot of pace and we weren't quite sure what was going to be in the race. We were thinking Goshen was going to be there to guarantee a truly run race, but then Not So Sleepy is in and we know he goes a right good gallop.

"There's going to be no hanging around and there'll be no hiding place, but she's done plenty of work. I think we're ready for it.

"It's been a good race for us with the exception of last year when Buveur D'Air was injured in it."

Henderson also left in Middleham Park Racing's exciting mare Marie's Rock, but she is set to go for the Gerry Feilden at Newbury on Saturday.

"She's only in it if something happens to Epatante," he said.

"We were looking at the entries and Tom Palin of Middleham said we'd stick her in, which we did at 11.45am just in case anything goes horribly wrong, but she's going for the Gerry Feilden."

Henderson also had an update on Champ, who won the RSA Chase in astonishing fashion when he appeared beaten only to conjure a tremendous late charge under an inspired Barry Geraghty.

Champ is engaged in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton on December 26, but is more likely to run in Leopardstown's Savills Chase over the festive period.

"He's very good," Henderson said. "He's building up well. We had to stop and have a wind operation, but I'm glad we've got that done and he's done some schooling at Henrietta Knight's. With his jumping last season, it could have just tightened up a bit, which we've tried to do. 

"He's back in full work now and, while he's in the King George, I'm mindful of the fact that for him and Santini – as much as I love Kempton – I don't think it's a good track for either of them.

"Champ would tend to go out to his left a little bit. He's in the King George, but I'd think he'd go to Ireland for the Savills Chase, which is the obvious race.

"He's a very good horse. He was learning last year and his wind might just have been why he lost his place in the RSA before he cleared it and came home miraculously."

Fighting Fifth
Betfair: 4-7 Epatante, 5 Sceau Royal, 11-2 Silver Streak, 8 Ribble Valley, 10 Cornerstone Lad, 20 bar