With Buveur D’air almost certainly ruled out for the rest of the season after picking up an injury in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle, leading Irish owner JP McManus will be hoping that his exciting mare Epatante can progress into his main hope for the Champion Hurdle at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.

The legendary punter was dealt another cruel blow, following the death of his 2019 winner Espor D’Allen in a freak accident after returning from the gallops, when dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’air was found to have a piece of wood from a hurdle lodged in his hoof after being beaten at long odds-on in the Newcastle showpiece by Cornerstone Lad.

Nicky Henderson’s eight-year-old was immediately made comfortable by racecourse vets before undergoing surgery the following morning. The wall of the hoof had to be opened up to remove the splinter and as a result it will take a long time for it to knit back together and heal properly.

Giving an update on his Unibet blog, the Seven Barrows handler said:

“The procedure went well and they were able to do it without having to put him under a general anaesthetic which can sometimes cause problems when the horse comes round and they can often fall when attempting to get back up, but thankfully the removal was conducted with him standing up.

“The important thing is that he hasn’t damaged his coffin joint which could have very nearly been career ending or worse so that is a huge relief and we have a lot to be thankful for as things could have been much, much worse.

Buveur D’Air’s welfare and health is of paramount importance and I simply cannot speculate as to how long it will take to get him back and if/when his next race will be. This in an injury which will not be resolved overnight so we will assess the situation on a day to day basis but he is in extremely safe hands and will get the best treatment he can.

“It’s a terrible shame for everyone concerned, including Hannah Ryan who absolutely adores him and she has barely left his side.”

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Can Epatante become a Champion Hurdle contender?

Buveur D’air had been the general ante post favourite to regain his Champion Hurdle crown next March. His highly likely absence now see McManus without an established performer for the Grade 1 contest – a race he was won a record eight times courtesy of Istabraq (1998, 1999, 2000), Binocular (2010), Jezki (2014), Buveur D’Air (2017, 2018), and Espoir d’Allen (2019).

However, in what is looking a wide-open renewal at this stage of the season, all may not be lost as Epatante looked an exciting prospect with bags of untapped potential when making a winning return to action in the Ladbrokes Winter Festival at Newbury. The five-year-old led home a one-two-three for Henderson in the Listed 2m Ladbrokes ‘Where the Nation Plays’ Intermediate Hurdle.

After racing in touch, Aidan Coleman brought the 3/1 favourite through to challenge going well three from home. Epatante was then pout in a slightly awkward jump when challenging at the second last, but was quickly back on the bridle approaching the final flight. Stablemate French Crusader led at that point and looked to be going equally as well, but Epatante soon got on top on the run-in and showed a very smart turn of foot to score easily by six lengths. Elusive Belle completed the trio for the Seven Barrows stable, four lengths away in third place.

Henderson said:

“That was all good. She was impressive, but the second horse is no mug and nor is the third.

Epatante seems have been favourite all week, but I fancied Elusive Belle funnily enough. She quickened up very well, but Epatante has got some toe.”

Open to any amount of progress

The French import has now won three of her four starts for Henderson and it was a performance which oozed star quality.

It came off an official rating of 137, so Eptantate has a long way to go if she is to develop into a serious Champion Hurdle contender.

However, the talent is undoubtedly there and the race has an illustrious roll of honour – including Comedy Of Errors, Lanzarote. Kribensis and Rock On Ruby who all went on to taste success in the Champion Hurdle.

The aforementioned ill-fated Espoir D’Allen was also a five-year old and developed at a rapid rate of knots before beating Melon by 15 lengths in this year’s Champion Hurdle.

I can see Epatante making similar giant strides in the coming months and monitoring her progress very closely. She is currently 25/1 with Paddy Power for the 2020 Champion Hurdle. In a race which no current standout performer, I think there are far worse speculative each-way ante post bets.

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