Nicky Henderson believes Epatante can demonstrate her defeat at last year’s Cheltenham Festival was a one-off by proving she is more than just a flat-track specialist in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
The JP McManus-owned six-year-old – one of five possible runners in the Grade One prize for Seven Barrows – saw her unbeaten record over jumps ended when suffering a surprise defeat as favourite in the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the meeting 12 months ago.
Since that reversal Epatante has taken her career to new heights, with impressive victories in the Gerry Feilden at Newbury and last time out in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Henderson said: “Last year there were four or five that didn’t turn up (to Cheltenham) like they should have done and I would have said with all of them it was probably flu vaccinations. I would think she fell into the same square.
“Your are right in saying that this time last year she was one of our best chances and it was very disappointing.
“I’ve read in some places she can only go on a flat track, just because she didn’t run very well at Cheltenham on the only time that she has been there – I don’t think that was the track.
“Sure, if it doesn’t work again I will have to agree with those that have concluded she is only any good around Kempton, but at the moment I’ve no worries.”
Henderson hopes a minor wind procedure combined with a switch in tactics can help revive the fortunes of Pentland Hills, who has suffered back-to-back Grade Two defeats this season at Cheltenham and Haydock.
He said: “We’ve cauterised his palate since Haydock. It will almost certainly make no difference whatsoever, but it is an effort to make sure everything is in place.
“He wants to switch off a little bit more and I think we will drop him in a bit more than we have done. The trouble is he is such a good jumper he is taking you there all the time.
“Both times he has come there and looked like he has come to win his race. I don’t think he has done anything wrong. They have just been races in bad ground both times.”
Henderson has not given up hope of seeing fellow Grade One winner Fusil Raffles bounce back from his disappointing effort behind Epatante at Kempton over Christmas.
He said: “He was very disappointing at Kempton and that is why I would have liked to run again. I don’t mind going down the racecourse gallop route.
“When he ran in the Adonis this time last year I didn’t fancy him a lot, then we got him back for Punchestown and I didn’t even think he was working well then. He could still come back into it.”
Ground conditions will determine whether last year’s Champion Hurdle fifth Verdana Blue lines up in the race for the second year running.
Henderson said: “Verdana Blue, as you know ground is crucial to her. If it was soft heavy there you would have to seriously think again.
“She is in very good form. She has had a quiet season because it hasn’t been her ground.”
Call Me Lord will bid to bounce back from a surprise odds-on defeat at Sandown and make it two wins from as many visits to Cheltenham, having claimed Grade Two honours there in the International in December.
Henderson said: “I thought he was a little bit flat there at Sandown the other day, I must admit.
“He won the International and he goes round Cheltenham. He has proven one thing, that he can go left, so he will join in.”