Five of last year’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle runners are back to take on each other, with the young pretender Monmiral the odd.
Let’s hope we do not see a repeat of the carnage Not So Sleepy caused last season when he deposed Paddy Brennan at the first before and then carried the Silver Streak out into the second.
It would be great to see 2020 Champion Hurdler Epatante back to her best, but given a disappointing campaign, she has a lot to prove. Will Nicky Henderson’s inmates win back-to-back renewals? Find out live at Sky Sports Racing on Saturday at 15.15.
Jockey: Sean Bowen, Coach: Paul Nicholls
Monmiral skipped last season’s Cheltenham Festival, en route to Aintree, where he won the Grade 1 Doom Bar Anniversary 4-YO Juvenile Hurdle, a final flight error from second place.
That form has since been reinforced in the Greatwood Hurdle, but even though he jumps and travels well, these are comfortably the best horses he has ever met and perhaps could have done with softer surfaces, given his knee action.
Not so sleepy
J: Jonathan Burke, T: Hughie Morrison
A forward frontrunner who caused carnage in this race last year before winning a valuable Ascot handicap and then driving well in the Champion Hurdle when he finished fifth.
During his best in Aintree Hurdle, however, perhaps the trip saw him stretch the ground with plenty of juice.
He’s going to Newcastle on the back of a nice flat run 36 days ago, so fitness won’t be an issue and dangerous if left alone at the front end.
Royal Copenhagen Seal
J: Daryl Jacob, T: Alan King
While he has always had stronger form over fences, he apparently goes to this year’s Fighting Fifth in better order over the minor obstacles.
Was nicely held by Epatante last season, but being left in front much faster than ideal would not have fit.
With two races under his belt this campaign, decent terrain and pace to run in, the race lends itself nicely to him being able to go close.
J: Adam Wedge T: Evan Williams
Looked into rude health in the first half of last season, where his jump was improved with a switch to front-running tactics.
He beat Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle in Kempton, but the form slowed after and only returned satisfactorily after the Sceau Royal 41 days ago, and his leap lacked accuracy.
If he improves along with his jump and comes back to last year’s Christmas Hurdle form, he’s a big player.
The voice of dreams
J: Conor O’Farrell T: Iain Jardine
A well-maintained fourth place behind Epatante in this race last season in first-time cheekbones before running some great races over obstacles and fences.
None of that form, however, makes him good enough to win here, and in truth it looks like a difficult task.
J: Aidan Coleman T: Nicky Henderson
Despite winning this race in a visually stunning way last season, she was not really close to regaining her best form.
Back problems may have been to blame and the connections will hope the surgery she underwent this summer will have solved the problem.
Epatante from 2020 at Cheltenham guarantees her current price of 11/10, but Epatante from the previous season does not, so the market will be worth a check.
Declan’s verdict on the big race
With Not So Sleepy and Silver Streak running, along with Monmiral and the first time visored Voix Du Reve, this year’s Fighting Fifth was to be run at a good and fair gallop. This hopefully means the best horse wins.
In terms of top performance, Epatante is without a doubt the horse to beat, but it remains to be seen which Epatante shows up on Saturday after a poor 2020/21 campaign.
A back operation and her trainer string in good health could easily get her back to her best, but it’s a bit of a guessing game, and therefore she is bypassed for the prices. The same is Monmiral at 3/1, which means Sceau Royal and Silver Streak are the two best betting options.
With the former coming into the race in good order, and the latter potentially being plagued at the helm of Not So Sleepy, Royal Copenhagen Seal (9/2) gets a nod.
If the market suggests that Epatante is back to its best, Sceau Royal is worth looking at in the market ‘without a favorite’, where anything over 2/1 would be of interest.
I just hope all the watering Newcastle have done this week, with forecasts for rain coming, does not ruin this card and the chances of the award.