EPATANTE gave legendary Irish owner JP McManus a perfect birthday present as she stormed to victory in the Champion Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.
The 2/1 favourite oozed class with a comfortable success in the green and gold of McManus.
Our own Aidan Coleman got on the scoresheet with victory in the Arkle aboard Put The Kettle On while there were narrow defeats for Paul Townend and Davy Russell on a thrilling opening day on the Cotswolds.
While Epatante is trained in England it turned out to be an excellent day for the travelling Irish with a double for Henry De Bromhead.
Put The Kettle On (above) was a surprise 16/1 winner of the Arkle while Rachael Blackmore registered her first winner of the week aboard the brilliant Honeysuckle who edged out Bennie Des Dieux and Paul Townend.
Nicky Henderson also enjoyed a double with the Joe Donnelly-trained Shiskin landing the opening Supreme Novice Hurdle in dramatic circumstances from Abacadabras and Davy Russell. The Youghal rider appeared to be travelling best but was outstayed by the gutsy winner Shiskin (below).
The Champion Hurdle was crying out for a classy performance and Epatante delivered big time. Jockey Barry Geraghty has seen it all before but this victory was very special to the Meath man.
Epatante travelled beautifully all through and was long but bold at the final hurdle and sailed away to a smooth success from 16-1 shot Sharjah, who finished strongly, with the plucky Darver Star third.
Geraghty, who came back from a serious leg fracture last year, admitted that he had feared the soft ground may have scuppered his chance of a fourth Champion Hurdle victory.
Geraghty said: "I thought after riding Chantry House in the first it was too slow for her, I thought she'd struggle.
"I was worried about it all week. But every step of the way she was a dream.
"She missed one or two because she was wanting to get on with it and trying to take them on so I was always trying to keep a lid on her and let her pop. It's brilliant."
Former bookmaker Joe Donnelly was a well-known figure in greyhound and racing circles for decades on Leeside. The media-shy owner is a leading art collector and lets his horses do the talking.
He looks to have a serious horse on his hands with Shiskin who battled on bravely in a very messy supreme novice hurdle.
Winning jockey Nico De Boinville said: “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, but it just shows what a fantastic horse he is going forward. He’s got so much ability and I'm looking forward to going chasing with him next year.
“It's his first time in a big field and on this testing ground as well. It was just a case of finding where he could travel.
I pulled him out down the hill just to give him a bit of light and get him to come on the bridle again. And then he took me into the straight. I think it was a very good race and plenty will come out of it.”
Honeysuckle battled to victory in the Close Brothers Mares's Hurdle under an impeccably timed ride from Rachael Blackmore, upsetting 4-6 favourite Benie Des Dieux.
Honeysuckle drew clear of Benie Des Dieux rounding the home turn and never looked back, seeing off the 2018 winner and giving trainer Henry de Bromhead his second success of the day.
Blackmore was welcomed back to the largest cheer of the day on her return to the enclosure, with the adoring crowd paying tribute to a first-class ride from the Tipperary woman.
The jockey positioned Honeysuckle perfectly against the rail in a pivotal moment of the race, forcing Paul Townend and Benie Des Dieux to take a wide line approaching the hill.
Honeysuckle displayed a fruitful combination of class and grit to hold on to her unbeaten record by half a length.
De Bromhead was delighted by an exceptional performance from both horse and jockey.
"Honeysuckle really battled there and threw herself at the last. Whatever about her, the lady on her back is just as special. She was amazing, she had to sit and suffer and then snuck up the rail. She took her opportunity and was gone. The pair of them are brilliant."
Of her tactical move up the rail, a humble Blackmore said:
"I was kind of forcing I suppose, but I knew I had plenty of toe at the back of the last. It's just brilliant. It's a big week so I'm delighted.
"Henry has produced her in tip-top shape every day she runs. I'm the lucky one who gets to steer her round."