Five of last year’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle runners are back to take each other on, with young pretender Monmiral the odd one out.
Let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of the carnage Not So Sleepy caused last season, when he unseated Paddy Brennan at the first before and then carrying Silver Streak out at the second.
It would be great to see 2020 Champion Hurdler Epatante back to her best, but on the back of a disappointing campaign, she has much to prove. Will Nicky Henderson’s inmate win back-to-back renewals? Find out live on Sky Sports Racing on Saturday at 3.15pm.
Jockey: Sean Bowen, Trainer: Paul Nicholls
Monmiral skipped last season’s Cheltenham Festival, heading to Aintree where he won the Grade 1 Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle, a last flight mistake from the runner-up helping.
That form has since been boosted in the Greatwood Hurdle, but while he jumps and travels well, these are comfortably the best horses he has ever faced and maybe could have done with softer ground, given his knee action.
Not So Sleepy
J: Jonathan Burke, T: Hughie Morrison
A forward-going front-runner who caused carnage in this race last year before going on to win a valuable Ascot handicap and then running well in the Champion Hurdle when fifth.
Below his best in the Aintree Hurdle, but maybe found the trip stretching him on ground with plenty of juice.
He heads to Newcastle on the back of a lovely flat run 36 days ago so fitness won’t be an issue and dangerous if left alone on the frontend.
J: Daryl Jacob, T: Alan King
While he has always had stronger form over fences, he seemingly heads to this year’s Fighting Fifth in better order over the smaller obstacles.
Was nicely held by Epatante in last season’s running, but being left in front far sooner than ideal wouldn’t have suited.
With two runs under his belt this campaign, decent ground and pace to run at, the race setups nicely for him to go close.
J: Adam Wedge T: Evan Williams
Looked in rude health in the first half of last season, with his jumping improving with a switch to front-running tactics.
He beat Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, but form tailed off after and only made a satisfactory return behind Sceau Royal 41 days ago and his jumping lacked accuracy.
If he improves, along with his jumping and gets back to last year’s Christmas Hurdle form, he is a big player.
Voix Du Reve
J: Conor O’Farrell T: Iain Jardine
A well-held fourth behind Epatante in this race last season in first-time cheekpieces before running some nice races over hurdles and fences.
None of that form makes him good enough to win here however, and in truth, this looks a tough task.
J: Aidan Coleman T: Nicky Henderson
Despite winning this race in a visually stunning manner last season, she didn’t really come close to recapturing her best form.
Back issues may have been to blame for that, and connections will hope the surgery she undertook in the summer will have alleviated the problem.
The Epatante of 2020 at Cheltenham warrants her current price of 11/10, but the Epatante of the previous season doesn’t so the market will be worth a check.
Declan’s big-race verdict
With Not So Sleepy and Silver Streak running, along with Monmiral and the first-time visored Voix Du Reve, this year’s Fighting Fifth should be run at a good and fair gallop. This hopefully means the best horse wins.
On peak performances, Epatante is undoubtedly the horse to beat, but it remains to be seen which Epatante turns up on Saturday after a poor 2020/21 campaign.
A back operation and her trainers’ string in good health could easily spark her back to her best, but it’s a bit of a guessing game and so, she is passed over at the prices. So too is Monmiral at 3/1 meaning Sceau Royal and Silver Streak look the two best betting options.
With the former coming into the race in great order and the latter potentially going to be pestered on the lead by Not So Sleepy, Sceau Royal (9/2) gets the nod.
Should the market suggest Epatante is back to her best, Sceau Royal is worth looking at in the ‘without favourite’ market where anything above 2/1 would be of interest.
I just hope all the watering Newcastle have done this week, with forecast rain set to come, doesn’t ruin this card and the selection’s chances.