2021 Champion Hurdle Tips – Mares Honeysuckle and Epatante Set For Epic Clash

Epatante (centre) clears the last on her way to winning the 2020 Champion Hurdle.

Epatante (centre) clears the last on her way to winning the 2020 Champion Hurdle.

2021 Champion Hurdle Tips

It’s the feature race on Day 1 of the Cheltenham Festival and this year’s affair looks a wide-open contest with a mix of both sexes competing to become the early breakout star of this season’s big meeting. Daniel Overall is back on hand to assess all of the key contenders.

Champion Hurdle Overview

Last year’s running of the Champion Hurdle was billed as one of the most open renewals in recent memory. Epatante was the one with the potential to be a class above her rivals but a shadow loomed over her claims to the crown having failed to fire at the festival in 2019. She comfortably brushed that concern aside on route to an impressive victory, giving JP McManus his fourth consecutive victory in the race and his ninth in total. 

With Epatante’s defeat in the Christmas Hurdle and last season’s novices failing to progress as expected in open company, this year’s renewal was shaping up similarly to 2020; that was until Honeysuckle’s emphatic display in the Irish Champion Hurdle saw her shoot to the top of the market, setting up a fascinating clash between the two mares. 

Another Dual Winner?

Since its inception in 1927, 14 horses have won the Champion Hurdle on more than one occasion; five have won it three times, while nine have won it twice, with three doing the double this century. 

Epatante began her season in great style, readily brushing aside the race-fit Sceau Royal (66/1) in the Fighting Fifth, demonstrating her wonderful turn of foot and improving her record to six wins from seven starts over hurdles. 

A 1/5 favourite for the Christmas Hurdle on her next start, it was, on paper, a straightforward task; only four rivals lined up to challenge her, with the primary dangers being Silver Streak and Ballyandy, who finished second and third in the 2019 renewal. However, she could only manage second as a change of tactics allowed the consistent grey to land his first Grade 1.

Her pre-race demeanour was highlighted after the race, with her trainer noting that she was “doing an awful lot of head shaking” as if something was amiss. Aidan Coleman noted that “Her usual burst of speed wasn’t there”, with her performance epitomised by a bad blunder at the third last; a far cry from her usually slick jumping.

After her victory in the Champion Hurdle last season, Barry Geraghty proclaimed “there’s no better trainer of a Champion Hurdler (than Nicky Henderson)”; with nine wins in the race to his name, Barry may well be right. In an interview with Nick Luck, Nicky seemed confident that he’d identified the issue that prohibited his star mare of performing at her best, which he later clarified was related to her back. He is well versed in bringing a horse back to win a Champion Hurdle, with Binocular seemingly written off before his win in 2010. 

Likely to head straight to Cheltenham, Epatante has a tremendous record fresh and she’s in the right hands to bounce back.

Speaking of previous Champion Hurdle winners, it would be remiss of me were I not to mention the dual champion, Buveur D’Air (22/1). His campaign last term was curtailed by a freak injury that he picked up in the Fighting Fifth, which was close to ending his career entirely. 

Thankfully, he returned to the track at Haydock after 420 days off the course. While it was good to see him again, his performance was underwhelming as he finished second to Navajo Pass in receipt of 4lbs. He reportedly “took a big blow” approaching the final hurdle, with Nicky keen to emphasise that he would improve for the run. Even so, he would need to improve significantly to challenge for a Champion Hurdle, and there hasn’t been a ten-year-old winner of the race since 1981.

Honeysuckle Stakes Her Claim

Honeysuckle has accumulated quite an impressive CV for one still so young. A perfect ten out of ten under rules, including five Grade 1’s and a win at the Cheltenham Festival, her 2021 festival target was to be decided after her run in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

And she could not have been more impressive at Leopardstown, routing her rivals by ten-lengths in her most impressive performance to date. Although she won the race last year, she did not fully convince as a two-miler but this year was an entirely different story. Having travelled powerfully throughout, her jumping was uncharacteristically slick as she took over from Petit Mouchoir (100/1) after the fourth last, striding on purposefully and not allowing her challengers to mount a challenge.

While it was unquestionably an impressive performance, the race could not have panned out any better for her and Cheltenham will present a different challenge. If she can jump as she did at Leopardstown, she has a great chance of enhancing her unbeaten record. 

The Unexpectedly Progressive

Epatante’s conqueror in the Christmas Hurdle, Silver Streak has looked a rejuvenated horse this season. An impressive winner of a Listed race at Kempton on his seasonal reappearance, he was carried out at an early stage in the Fighting Fifth before finishing a gallant 2nd in a muddling renewal of the International Hurdle. 

Despite his impressive form, he finished second to Epatante in the 2019 running of the Christmas Hurdle and he was 12 lengths back in sixth in the 2020 Champion Hurdle. However, a combination of front-running tactics, which were employed for the first time in his career, and a below-par Epatante saw Evan Williams’s admirable performer run out an impressive and decisive winner. Evan Williams mentioned in a recent interview that the change of tactics was due to a lack of pace in the race, and that their approach to the Champion Hurdle will be dictated by what others in the line-up want to do.

Despite having 25 starts over hurdles under his belt, there’s every reason to believe that Silver Streak is better than ever. While he’s unlikely to get an easy lead in the Champion Hurdle, it’s beneficial that he can now be ridden more handily than in his younger days; while he was well beaten in last year’s renewal, he did plug on nicely having never got into a rhythm under a patient ride.

The one horse to beat Silver Streak this season when he’s completed the race is Song For Someone (20/1), who won the International Hurdle giving the grey 2lb. A slick jumper, the missing hurdles that day wouldn’t have helped him for all that he was better positioned than the runner up as the race unfolded. 

A six-year-old on an upward curve, his form with Silver Streak reads well now and he’s certainly earned his right to run in Grade 1 company for the first time since finishing down the field at Aintree as a juvenile. 

While we know he stays further, he’ll be ridden positively and his efficient jumping will ask questions of his rivals. Tom Symonds has noted that he’d be worried about his tactical speed if the ground was on the quicker side, which would be a concern, but 20/1 looks a generous price given his progressive profile. 

The Irish Challengers

Saint Roi (25/1) was an emphatic winner of last season’s County Hurdle and was fancied by many to progress into a Champion Hurdle contender this term, especially after his festival victory was franked by the Country Hurdle runner-up, Aramon. However, he has failed to build on his seasonal reappearance and was last seen finishing over 25 behind Honeysuckle when last seen. He looks to have plenty to prove at this stage although he does have time on his side. 

Second to Shishkin in the Supreme, Abacadabras beat Saint Roi in the Morgiana before disappointing in the Matheson although he was found to have mucus in his lungs following the race. He bounced back in the Irish Champion Hurdle, shaping well behind Honeysuckle without ever threatening to land a blow. A stronger pace will suit this strong traveller and his Cheltenham form reads well, but he needs a career best to threaten the mares. 

Sharjah (14/1) finished second in last year’s renewal and won the Matheson Hurdle over the festive period before disappointing at the Dublin Racing Festival. Classy on his day, his issue is his apparent lack of consistency, with a good run often being followed by an indifferent one.

Mullins and the Ricci’s also have Saldier (66/1); a talented horse who’s only had three starts since 2019. Despite strong vibes from the yard prior to his run in the Irish Champion Hurdle, he was bitterly disappointing and never looked like winning. He has plenty to prove at this stage.

Henry De Bromhead opted to swerve the Dublin Racing Festival with Aspire Tower. Second in the Triumph, he has fared better than many ex-juveniles have in their first season in open company; beating Abacadabras in the WKD hurdle, albeit in receipt of 6lbs which he won’t get in March, before finishing second to Sharjah in the Matheson. There have been three five-year-old winners since 1985, but 105 have tried in that time and their overall record is poor. He likes to race prominently but there are plenty of others in here that do too, and Aspire Tower is prone to make jumping errors.

Champion Hurdle Big-Race Verdict

A fascinating clash between two top-class mares. Epatante needs to bounce back from her below-par run at Christmas but she’s in the right hands to do so.

However, preference is for Honeysuckle who could not have been more impressive at the Dublin Racing Festival and is yet to taste defeat under rules. At this stage, she has less to prove than the incumbent champion although a Champion Hurdle on good to soft ground would be her toughest test to date. The geldings have it all to do in conceding 7lbs to two superstar mares, but Song For Someone appeals most at an each-way price given his progression through the ranks.