LAMBOURN handler Nicky Henderson admits Epatante may need to have a new programme mapped out ahead of the defence of her Champion Hurdle crown.

The JP McManus-owned mare struck in what was the Gerry Feilden Hurdle at Newbury and Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle before lifting the two-mile championship at the Cheltenham Festival.

Under the present conditions for the Gerry Feilden, Epatante would not be able to go for the race again.

The obvious target, the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on the same day (November 28), would be the likely starting point for Buveur D’Air, who is in the same ownership.

He was injured finishing second in the latest renewal, when attempting to take the prize for the third successive year, but is expected to return to the track next season.

“Epatante is going to have to go down a different route back to the Champion Hurdle to what she started this season,” Henderson said.

“Hopefully we have Buveur D’Air back in action and the Fighting Fifth has always been his race, so we would have to think what we do.”

Henderson was delighted Epatante justified the team’s faith in her ability - more than making up for her run in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival 12 months earlier.

“It was good and everything she did was very professional to be fair and everything went right. It was a lovely ride from Barry (Geraghty),” the Seven Barrows handler said.

“She jumped and travelled well and you could see she looked to have a good shout from a long way out, as she was always in the right position.

“She showed the gears I hoped she would show, as a lot of people said when she showed them at Kempton it would be different at Cheltenham. Luckily for us she did show them the whole way up the hill.

“We have constantly stood by her excuses for last year’s run at the Festival and luckily she has vindicated us for doing that.”

Henderson gave credit to Epatante’s owner for targeting the Christmas Hurdle.

He added: “It was quite a long way from a Gerry Feilden Hurdle to Cheltenham and to be fair it was JP’s idea to go for the Christmas Hurdle and it is not the most orthodox route.

“Having lost Espoir D’Allen (last year’s winner) to a tragic accident and Buveur D’Air to an injury, for any operation to find another Champion Hurdle horse in the space of a year is remarkable.

“It had been very much the plan to go to Punchestown as she had been working with a view to go there, but she is now going back to Ireland (at her owner’s stud).”

Henderson has not lost any confidence in Pentland Hills and Fusil Raffles, who disappointed in ninth and 11 places respectably in the Champion. Both were Grade One winners as four-year-olds.

“Pentland Hills and Fusil Raffles - we are investigating into them,” he said.

“It is always hard for four year-olds that turn five in their second season.

“They will definitely be back stronger. I am confident they are both still Grade One horses.”