Cheltenham Festival News

Five reasons why Energumene could turn the tables on Shishkin

By Andy Stephens@StevoGG
Sun 23 Jan 2022

There were two almost unanimous verdicts after the SBK Clarence House Chase at Ascot on Saturday.

The first was that Shishkin and Energumene had provided a wonderful spectacle that will long live in the memory. No argument on that one.

The second was that the chances of Energumene reversing the form in the Champion Chase were slim. Even Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh cast doubt on the notion, while bookmakers had widened the gap between the two horses.

“Shishkin made two mistakes I think, so that would leave you to think we have a bit to go yet before we beat him,” Mullins said. “Shishkin is not too bad around Cheltenham. You would have to think we are going to find it hard.”

And Walsh agreed, telling Racing TV viewers: “Everything went spot on for Energumene and there was absolutely no excuse for him. Shishkin, if he had been defeated, he did have an excuse having made a mistake down the back straight, but he still found a way to win which he always seems to do. I think it is going to be hard for Energumene to turn that around.”

But all is not lost for fans of Energumene. Here are five reasons why he might turn the tables in a sequel which, hopefully, will again have us all on the edge of our seats.

 Shishkin trails Energumene over the final fence before asserting late on (focusonracing.com)
Shishkin trails Energumene over the final fence before asserting late on (focusonracing.com)

1 The Champion Chase is over a shorter trip

The Clarence House Chase was advertised as being run over 2m 167 yards but the running rail on the Chase Course was positioned between 5 and 8yds out around the whole course. As a consequence, that added “approximately 43 yards”, meaning the race was over just 10 yards short of two miles and a furlong.

I think we can all agree that Shishkin needed almost every yard – and certainly those extra ones - to muscle his way to the front. The ground was officially soft, good to soft in places, and he stopped the clock at just over 4min 16sec. Timeform assessed the going as soft.

This year’s Champion Chase, in just over seven weeks, is set to be run over 1m 7f and 199 yards. In other words, 230 yards less than the race at Ascot on Saturday. That shorter distance will surely be to Energumene’s advantage.

The last time the Champion Chase was run on soft ground was in 2019, when Altior won in a time of 3min 59.4sec.


2 The nature of Cheltenham

The Champion Chase is run on the Old Course at Cheltenham, on the second day of the Festival. It is much sharper in nature than the New Course, which is used for the second half of the meeting, although modern-day watering means Edredon Bleu’s record time of 3min 44.7sec in 2000, when he made all under AP McCoy, is almost certainly never going to be lowered.

The uphill finish can lend itself to fabulous drama but, overall, the track lends itself well to front-runners such as Energumene, especially over distances of about 2m.

You’ve only got to look at the past five renewals of the Champion Chase to see how the dice can be loaded in their favour. Put The Kettle On was never far from the lead when prevailing last year, while Politologue (2020) and Special Tiara (2017) both made all. In between, Altior won in successive years and raced mostly prominently each time.

This season, such as Before Midnight and Editeur Du Gite have also been all-the-way 2m handicap winners on the Old Course.

Energumene is unproven at Cheltenham but he’s won at variety of tracks in his native Ireland and there’s nothing to suggest it will be an inconvenience to him. On the contrary, it should play to his strengths.

Shishkin is already a dual Festival winner, although he won an Arkle that lacked depth last year and increasingly looks as though he will be even more effective over further. I’d love to see him aimed at the King George VI Chase next year to see if he might make up into a Gold Cup horse.


3 Grounds for optimism

Soft ground at Ascot brought Shishkin’s stamina into play and helped him claw back Energumene in the closing stages after it seemed certain his unbeaten record over fences was going to be punctured.

Will it be so testing at Cheltenham in the spring?

It’s a possibility, of course, but a drier surface with more bounce in it would seem more likely.

Energumene copes well with soft ground but logic dictates that anything which makes the race more a test of pace will be more to his advantage. He looks a speedy two-miler, whereas Shishkin looks more a staying two-miler.

Also, Energumene was having just his sixth start over fences on Saturday, having previously never been anything like extended. Shishkin arrived a little more battle-hardened, plus had more of a “workout” than his rival on his return.


 Shishkin and Nico de Boinville after a memorable success (focusonracing.com)
Shishkin and Nico de Boinville after a memorable success (focusonracing.com)

4 Jumping and flat patches

Energumene gets from A to B very quickly over fences and went through most of Saturday’s race on the bridle. He’d also won easily on his comeback at Cork in early December.

Shishkin was taken out of his comfort zone by the fractions he set and he pecked badly at the sixth, a ditch. Overall, he was not as slick as his rival. Some will mark up Shishkin’s performance but I wouldn’t be inclined to give him extra credit, and would be worried about errors creeping in again at Cheltenham, given it will be an even quicker contest.

Like the brilliant Altior in his latter years before him, Shishkin also seems prone to hitting a flat patch. Either that, or he does not instantly pick up (there’s a fine line distinguishing between the two) and that happened on Saturday when he swung for home.

There was no other horses around Shishkin at the time, and as a result there was no additional penalty to pay. But had he been stuck behind traffic, searching for that extra gear, then there might have been. A bigger field at Cheltenham could bring more hazards for Shishkin, whereas it would likely make no odds to Energumene.


5 Somewhere over the rainbow

If the Energumene camp need a source of inspiration, they could do worse than recall events in the 2012 Clarence House.

Finian’s Rainbow travelled best and looked sure to win between the last two fences, only for Somersby to outstay him and win by just over a length.

Somersby went on to run in the Ryanair Chase (he hadn’t been quick enough in the Champion Chase the previous year) but Finian’s Rainbow lined up in the big one and, with much more emphasis on speed, went one better. The winning time was 17 seconds quicker than the Ascot race.

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