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Grand National - Racing: Opening Day Review

The first day of Aintree's Grand National Festival was packed with incident and intrigue, but it was star mare Epatante who hogged the headlines for trainer Nicky Henderson.

Epatante won the seventh Grade 1 race of her career when scooping the Aintree Hurdle, quashing doubts about her stamina as she cruised home under Aidan Coleman.

That was a big help to Henderson, who'd earlier seen trainers' championship rival Paul Nicholls take the Betway Bowl, with Clan Des Obeaux an imperious winner.

The big drama unfolded in the second race, with Knight Salute and Pied Piper inseparable after a real ding-dong battle, only for the stewards to award the race to the former - giving trainer Milton Harris his first top-level success in the process.

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Epatante answers the doubters

The 2020 Champion Hurdle heroine at Cheltenham, many questioned if Epatante would see out the two-and-a-half-mile journey in the Aintree Hurdle. She was keen early, but Coleman was superb in conserving her energy.

Only a length split Epatante (second) and Zanahiyr (third) at Cheltenham last month as they chased home Honeysuckle, and they were set to engage in battle again when the latter came down under Jack Kennedy at the last, just as Epatante was cruising alongside him.

That left Monmiral and McFabulous - both for Nicholls - to grab valuable prize money, with less than £20k splitting the powerhouse pair.

Both owner JP McManus and rider Coleman paid tribute to Henderson for the way he's brought Epatante - now 10/1 to win the 2023 Champion Hurdle - back to her best.

"She's had a fantastic year and Nicky is an unbelievable trainer. For this mare, who wasn't at her best last year but ran admirably all the time, to get back to arguably her best form not long after the Champion Hurdle, I'm delighted," Coleman told ITV Racing.

Back-to-back Bowls for Clan

Clan Des Obeaux won the Betway Bowl for the second year running, Harry Cobden's mount making a decisive move on the entrance to the home straight and sticking tough as Irish Gold Cup winner Conflated came with a late run under Davy Russell to try and reel him in.

Winless since this meeting last year, Clan Des Obeaux sported first-time blinkers and was in a good spot throughout the race. He made a mistake at the third last, but it didn't knock him back, as he powered home to win his fifth Grade 1 contest.

Protektorat, best of the British in last month's Gold Cup at Cheltenham, was sent off the 5/2 favourite, but made a few mistakes and could only manage fourth for Dan and Harry Skelton, while front-running Kemboy - winner of the race in 2019 - was third home for Willie Mullins and Paul Townend.

Clan Des Obeaux could head to Ireland for the Punchestown Gold Cup, while Nicholls may also be tempted by the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown if the trainers' championship goes to the wire and he's a 10/1 chance in that market.

Money in the Bank for Hales

Trainer Alex Hales and jockey Kielan Woods combined to land their maiden Grade 1 success as Millers Bank surged clear of his rivals in the SSS Super Alloys Manifesto Novices' Chase, the curtain-raiser for Aintree's three-day meeting.

Millers Bank had good memories of the meeting, having run third in the Aintree Hurdle a year ago, and he was a comprehensive winner here, banishing the memories of two falls in four runs this season.

Rachael Blackmore and Gin On Lime led the field, but the mare tired late on and was last of four to complete. Her main market rival Erne River crashed out at the tenth fence, while another rival Pic D'orhy was pulled up, having made a costly blunder five out.

Arkle fourth War Lord was coming to challenge after the second last, but Woods was exuding confidence on Millers Bank and they powered clear from the second last for a ten-length win.

Both Woods and Hales were emotional afterwards, the trainer declaring: "It's taken a long time to get here and it's a massive team effort, it gets you a bit. We've worked hard for so long to find horses like him, so to do it here is just wonderful."

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Drama as Knight and Piper serve up a cracker

Pied Piper, third in last month's Triumph at Cheltenham, was a warm order for the Jewson Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle for Davy Russell and Gordon Elliott.

His main rival in the market was Brazil, the Fred Winter winner, but that challenge petered out and it was Harris' Knight Salute, well down the field in the Triumph, who appeared as the main danger under Paddy Brennan.

Russell was at pains not to lead too soon, but he had little choice as Pied Piper cruised to the front, while Brennan held on to Knight Salute going to the last.

The leader jumped slightly across the second at the final flight before they settled in for a prolonged duel up the run-in, flashing by the line in unison. That's just how it was, as a long deliberation from the judge couldn't split them and a dead-heat was called.

As Russell and Brennan embraced - both seemingly relieved to dead-heat - a stewards' enquiry was announced. Both riders felt the interference was inconsequential as they gave evidence, Brennan emerging with great credit as he did at Cheltenham last month, for his honesty.

The stewards felt different, awarding the race to Knight Salute and placing Pied Piper second, though it wasn't a decision the winning trainer agreed completely with.

"That doesn't sit well with me, I don't see any benefit to that," said Harris after the enquiry. "It's a matter for the stewards, but I feel for Gordon. It's not the way I like to play sport."

Andrews gets Foxhunters' Pass at last

Gina Andrews, a record-breaking point-to-point rider, was runner-up in the Randox Foxhunters' Open Hunters' Chase, but she went one better this time on the gutsy Latenightpass.

She tracked last year's winner Cousin Pascal, with Cat Tiger never far away, as the first three from 2021 looked set to dominate again.

David Maxwell and Cat Tiger were biding their time over the last, but Latenightpass pulled out more to win, with Porlock Bay getting up to take third.

Evan Williams and Adam Wedge won the Red Rum Handicap Chase, coming out best in a duel late on with Dancing On My Own for Henry De Bromhead and Darragh O'Keefe.

The final race on day one was Grade 2 Mares' bumper stacked with quality and it went to Willie and Patrick Mullins in stylish fashion, as Ashroe Diamond powered clear in the closing stages to ensure the Irish challenge finally got on the scoresheet on day one.

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