Cheltenham Ones To Watch: Shishkin

Trained in Lambourn by Nicky Henderson Shishkin made an inauspicious start to his hurdling career when coming down at the second in a Newbury Maiden Hurdle in December 2019 before making no mistake on heavy ground back at the Berkshire track the following month.

It is often forgotten that he then stepped up in distance to a trip just shy of 2m 4f when landing the listed Sydney Banks Hurdle in his next start at Huntingdon. Henderson quickly scotched any speculation post-race that the Ballymore (2m 5f) would be his Festival target saying his horse had plenty of gears and that the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle would be his Cheltenham objective.

He was cut to 3/1 market leader for the Supreme immediately after Henderson’s confirmation that was the plan, but he drifted like a barge on race-day out to 6/1 as the money arrived for the Irish challengers the Willie Mullins’ trained Asterion Collonges (9/4 fav) and Gordon Elliot’s Abacadabras (11/4).

No horse – not even Energumene – has finished closer to Shishkin than Abacadabras did in the Supreme when only a head – looked more like a nose to the naked eye – separated them at the line. But that does not tell the whole story.

Asterion Collonges had jumped slightly out to his right when scoring going left-handed at both Naas and in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown on his final start pre-Cheltenham. Those victories suggested Cheltenham wouldn’t be a problem for the grey and Paul Townend took the market leader to the front from flag-fall in the Supreme, but he jumped right at the first and continued that trend going out into the country.

Shishkin kept to the inside but made a bad mistake at the third and Nico De Boinville was forced to come eight wide coming down the hill to the third last where Asterion Collonges jumped violently out to his right interfering with almost half the field. Worse was to follow.

At the second last Asterion Collonges jumped across Elikir D’ainay who fell bringing down Captain Guinness – note both were going well at the time – and the latter badly interfered with Shishkin who was almost brought to a standstill. That looked his race over with the irony being that both Shishkin and the errant Asterion Collonges – who had caused the carnage – were running in the colours of leading owner Jim Donnelly.

De Boinville refused to panic on Shishkin, however, and gathered his mount together and they were able to jump the last on terms with Abacadabras before getting the better of an epic dual up the famous hill. Watching the race again I firmly believe Shishkin would have won five or six lengths with an uninterrupted passage.

Shishkin’s novice chase season was one of almost total domination winning his first four chases by an aggregate of over 55 lengths including a fluent Arkle success back at Cheltenham in March where he had 12L in hand of Eldorado Allen.

The Arkle had been one of the most eagerly awaited races of the Festival but, at the eleventh hour, the race lost much of its lustre when the best of the Irish Energumene was a late defector. We would have to wait another 10 months for the pair to eventually lock horns, but it was to be well worth the wait.

I wasn’t convinced Shishkin was at his brilliant best when scoring at Aintree following on from Cheltenham but that was his fifth run of the season, and I thought his seasonal reappearance at Kempton over Christmas was sensational beating the recent Tingle Creek winner Greaneteen by 10L – albeit in receipt of 3lbs.

And so to Ascot, where we witnessed a race for the ages as two of the greatest two-mile chasers of all time went head-to-head with the unbeaten Irish raider Energumene looking to be going best for much of that 2m 1f test. But Shishkin, who had jumped slightly out to his left at most of his obstacles, has class and guts in equal measure and halfway up the run-in you knew he was getting to Energumene, and he was a length up at the line.

Speaking to Sky Sports Racing the day after Ascot jockey Nico De Boinville admitted:

“Turning in was the only time I thought ‘we’re cooked here and we’re going to have to pull out something special’ and he duly did, which I was quite amazed by.”

“It was like being at the football and fabulous to be taking part. It takes two to make such a race like that and all credit to Energumene and the connections for coming over and serving it up to us.”

Some suggest that the slightly shorter distance of the Champion Chase at Cheltenham will suit Energumene more than Shishkin in the rematch in March. I disagree and feel that Shishkin, for whom it will be another home game, will confirm the form on a course that clearly suits.

Shishkin is a best price of 4/6 with Betfred Non Runner No Bet for the feature race on day two of the Festival and he cannot be opposed as he bids to follow his magnificent former stablemates Altior and Sprinter Sacre by winning the Champion Chase 12 months after victory in the Arkle.

As long as Shishkin comes out of Cheltenham unscathed I hope to see Henderson target the Grade 1 Melling Chase at Aintree over two-and-a-half miles the following month. It may be wishful thinking, but I would love to see Shishkin v Allaho on Merseyside.

Remember that win of Shishkin over the intermediate 2m 3f+ trip at Huntingdon on just his second start over timber. Might connections want to explore the possibility that he might just be better again over further than the minimum trip with perhaps even the King George in mind at the end of the year?

Yes, I appreciate Altior was never quite the same horse after his epic battle with Cyrname at Ascot over 2m 5f, but that was a slog on desperate ground. A 2m 4f test on decent ground over the Mildmay course at Aintree at the end of the season would be my preferred option. The alternative would be a simple task at Sandown – a race Henderson loves – or an away fixture with Energumene at Punchestown!

No wonder we all love the jumps!