Epatante’s class shone through as Nicky Henderson’s former Champion Hurdle winner regained her Christmas Hurdle crown at Kempton.
The seven-year-old mare, who won the race in 2019, was turned over at odds of 1/5 in the Boxing Day contest last year, beaten by Evan Williams’ Silver Streak.
Returning to Kempton after dead-heating with Not So Sleepy in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, Epatante was sent off at 4/5 on this occasion and took it up to Not So Sleepy once more, with her slick jumping proving far superior over the entire two-mile trip.
With Not So Sleepy unable to keep his challenge going and fading quickly out of contention, Epatante was left in front as the five-runner field turned for home.
Glory And Fortune, a 28/1 outsider, produced a career-best performance to come through for second, just over two lengths behind the winner, with former Betfair Hurdle champion Soaring Glory in third.
‘Champion Hurdle performance’ leaves Henderson with tough call
Henderson was delighted to see Epatante back on form.
He said: “She is quick and all about speed. We expected to get a lead a lot longer than we did, but when she’s on her A-game and jumping like that, why stop her?
“It’s the first time Nico has ridden her and he did the right thing. Not So Sleepy might have been a bit like that today and her jumping was taking her to the front, so let her stride on.
“What you could see there is her jumping is back together again – she’s so slick through the air. I think that (back operation) has changed the game quite significantly.”
Paddy Power shortened Epatante to 8/1 from 10s for the Champion Hurdle and while Henderson admits his mare may ultimately end up at Cheltenham, he thinks connections have difficult decisions to make.
He added: “We set out at the beginning of the year with two goals – the Fighting Fifth and the Christmas Hurdle. Those were her two Champion Hurdles, if you like – and we’ve got one-and-a-half out of two!
“What happens next, we’ll have to see. We’ve got difficult days ahead and difficult decisions to make. She’s still a very good mare, but so is Honeysuckle.
“That was a Champion Hurdle performance today. It’s another bridge when you get there, but I suspect that’s where we’re going to finish up.”
Bravemansgame proved to be too strong for Ahoy Senor in landing the Grade One Kauto Star Novices’ Chase.
In a race where jumping proved pivotal, Bravemansgame had the edge in jumping accuracy and speed over his main market rival, with Harry Cobden nudging his mount clear for an impressive success for Ditcheat handler Paul Nicholls.
Ahoy Senor made crucial mistakes in the final straight, eventually finishing over seven lengths back for the Grand National-winning team of Derek Fox and Lucinda Russell.
Broomfield Burg (1/3) got favourite backers off to the perfect start with a bloodless success in the Play Ladbrokes 5-A-Side On Football Novices’ Hurdle, cruising to victory under De Boinville.
That victory prompted Sky Bet to cut the five-year-old into 25/1 from 40/1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
The Get Your Ladbrokes 1 Free Bet Today Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase was a race of changing complexion, with Jacamar staying on best of all under Danny Mullins to provide Milton Harris with another big-race winner.
Danny Kirwan and Your Darling battled it out early on, but couldn’t hold off the closers in the soft ground as Jacamar powered home in the final stages. Mister Coffey was back in second.