Off The Fence: Barry Geraghty backing Epatante to have no issue defending Fighting Fifth crown at Newcastle

Epatante set to defend Fighting Fifth crown at Newcastle on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Racing; Epatante's former jockey Barry Geraghty told the Off The Fence podcast: "Drying ground is ideal for her and two miles around there ticks all the boxes."

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Barry Geraghty believes there could yet be more to come from former Champion Hurdle winner Epatante as she returns to defend her Fighting Fifth title, live on Sky Sports Racing on Saturday at 3.15pm.

Barry Geraghty expects Epatante to have few issues defending her Fighting Fifth crown at Newcastle on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Racing.

Nicky Henderson's mare is set to return to the scene of her last victory on the track, having been beaten on three subsequent starts, including finishing third in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Her trainer has since pointed to back issues as the cause of her below-par efforts but connections are happy they have resolved the problem and anticipate a strong performance in this weekend's Grade One contest.

Having made the most of a weak edition of the race last year, when two rivals - Not So Sleepy and Silver Streak - exited at the first hurdle, Epatante looks likely to face a tougher task this year, with Paul Nicholls' Monmiral among the potential challengers.

Speaking on the Off The Fence podcast, Geraghty, who rode Epatante to four of her six victories over hurdles, said: "I've spoken to Nicky and he seems really happy with her. I'm looking forward to Newcastle.

Barry Geraghty celebrates as Epatante is led back into the winner's enclosure at Cheltenham after victory in the 2020 Champion Hurdle
Image: Barry Geraghty celebrates as Epatante is led back into the winner's enclosure at Cheltenham after victory in the 2020 Champion Hurdle

"Drying ground is ideal for her and two miles around there ticks all the boxes. If she is as well as they think she is then she should take a lot of beating.

"Off the opposition, Monmiral sidestepped the Triumph Hurdle last season and went to Aintree to beat Adagio, who has franked that form with his run in the Greatwood from top weight, but I wonder if Adagio was a beaten horse going to Aintree.

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The ground conditions will determine whether Monmiral returns at Newcastle next as trainer Paul Nicholls plots his final season over hurdles before going chasing.

"He has a bit to do as a four-year-old to trouble her. I think he'd struggle either way, even if the heavens did open.

"Sceau Royal is in great form after a brilliant win at Wincanton but there is no reason why he is going to reverse the form with Epatante from last year."

Fellow pundit Tony Keenan is expecting last year's runner-up Sceau Royal to run another big race having already landed the Grade Two Elite Hurdle at Wincanton this season.

Fighting Fifth live on Sky Sports

Fighting Fifth live on Sky Sports

Watch Fighting Fifth day at Newcastle on Saturday, November 27 from 11.45am live on Sky Sports Racing

"I thought this race didn't go well for Sceau Royal last year with Not So Sleepy running out at the first," Keenan said.

"It was carnage and it turned out to be really slowly run. He [Sceau Royal] was left in front, which really wouldn't suit him at all.

"He might run a little bit better now in a more suitable race set-up."

Question marks over Ontheropes form

Ontheropes and Sean O'Keeffe (far) jump the last to win the Munster National from A Wave Of The Sea
Image: Ontheropes and Sean O'Keeffe (far) jump the last to win the Munster National from A Wave Of The Sea

Geraghty is looking to the Irish raiders for his pick of the Ladbrokes Trophy field on Saturday at Newbury.

Henry De Bromhead's Wexford winner Eklat De Rire is the former rider's fancy in the big race, with question marks over the form of Willie Mullins' 9/2 favourite Ontheropes.

"I thought Eklat De Rire was the one on his form with Escaria Ten, who went on to be third to Galvin [in the National Hunt Chase]," Geraghty said.

"Ontheropes, for Willie Mullins, is the favourite but a funny one to figure out. He was beaten four times over fences before missing some time and then was second to Monkfish.

Eklat De Rire and Rachael Blackmore jumping to win for trainer Henry de Bromhead
Image: Eklat De Rire and Rachael Blackmore jumping to win for trainer Henry de Bromhead

"He then missed another year and came back to win the Munster National. It's hard enough to get a handle on him.

"You can question the strength of the form in the Munster National, beating A Wave Of The Sea who wasn't that well-fancied."

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Keenan added: "For both of the Irish horses the ground will be quite different to what they've been winning on.

"Just because they have that form on soft and heavy ground doesn't necessarily mean they can't improve on a decent surface but it'll be interesting to see how they handle it.

"Ontheropes managed a good time at Limerick but you can question what was filling the frame."

Watch the Off The Fence podcast with Barry Geraghty, Tony Keenan and Vanessa Ryle on the At The Races YouTube channel every Tuesday at 5pm.

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