By Graham Clark
Nicky Henderson admits Shishkin faces a “big test” as he prepares to make his first start since pulling up in the Cheltenham Festival more than eight months ago in Saturday’s Grade One Betfair Tingle Creek at Sandown Park.
The Seven Barrows trainer this morning declared both Shishkin and fellow stable star Jonbon – who runs in other Grade One race on the card, the Close Brothers Henry VIII Novices’ Chase – to give racing fans reason to be excited for the weekend.
And the six-time Champion Trainer gave positive reports on both, confirming they had schooled impressively this week, with Shishkin jumping 10 fences yesterday.
The multiple Grade One scorer is Evens Favourite with the race sponsor as he prepares to take on five rivals in the two-mile Betfair Tingle Creek Chase, on what will be his first start since pulling up in last season’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase at The Cheltenham Festival.
Following his first defeat over fences in March it was discovered that the gelded son of Sholokhov, who missed last year’s Betfair Tingle Creek Chase after failing to give Henderson the ‘right vibes’ in the build-up, was suffering from a bone condition.
With the Marie Donnelly-owned superstar now back to full health Henderson hopes he can join the likes of his previous Tingle Creek winners Altior (2018) and Sprinter Sacre (2012) in adding the prestigious race to his own CV ahead of enjoying another trophy-laden campaign.
Speaking at an online media event hosted by The Jockey Club today, Henderson said: “If we were happy we were always going to run as it has been the objective but I never wanted to get too carried away as you know what can happen. But we are here.
“I’m sure the ground is alright. We were talking to Andrew (Cooper, Sandown Park’s Clerk of the Course) earlier in the week.
“It can’t be that dry as it was only around four weeks ago when we were last there and they had to abandon halfway through the meeting as it was waterlogged so I’m sure it will be alright.
“He has come to hand pretty well. We were on target as long as we had a good clean run which unfortunately last year we didn’t get and we had to wait until Kempton then go to the Clarence House. This time all has gone well.
“He has been really good the whole way through. I think he looks fantastic and his schooling has been as brilliant as ever. He jumped 10 fences yesterday. Nico (de Boinville, jockey) has been really pleased with him and he rides him in most of his work.
“Jaydon (Lee) who looks after him rides him in his day to day routines and he thinks he feels great. We have got to start somewhere and this is what Grade One races are all about and that is where it is meant to happen. It is a very good competitive field.”
Among those set to challenge Shishkin is last year’s winner, and two-time bet365 Celebration Chase winner Greaneteen, who will be bidding for a fourth Grade One over course and distance.
Although Henderson respects his chances of the Paul Nicholls-trained runner he believes if Shishkin reproduces the effort that saw him defeat Energumene in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January it would see him go very close.
He continued: “There seems to be a lot of confidence coming out of Ditcheat, which I respect, as he is a good horse.
“You have got to go back and hope we have got the Shishkin that was at Ascot for that epic battle with Energumene last season which was the race of the season.
“If he is back to that we will be very competitive, I hope. That, I can’t guarantee as we had obviously had a mega problem after Cheltenham, but that I am confident that (bone condition) is behind us.
“He was very sore after Cheltenham and he was confined to barracks for two months but then we eventually got him out into a small field.
“Since he has been in everything has been great. His weight is good. It has all gone well, though there is no doubt there is improvement to come as it is his first run since March. I’m hopeful but it will be a big test - there is no doubt about that.”
Despite both Greaneteen and last year’s Close Brothers Henry VIII Novices’ Chase winner Edwardstone boasting Grade One winning form at the track Henderson is confident Shishkin’s lack of match practice at the track will not be a disadvantage.
He added: “I don’t see it as an away game for us. I don’t think it being his first time around Sandown makes a lot of difference to him.
“He has been around Ascot which is right handed and you go up and down a hill so it can’t be a lot of difference.
“It is a proper Grade One and so it should be. They are the best two milers around, without Energumene, who is the Champion Chaser.
‘It is good prize-money and this is where they should meet. Nobody has ducked or dived and we hope they won’t have to. There is 48 hours to go and that amount of time in a horse’s life is a long time.
“It is the first of the big clashes of the year of the two milers and it has always been a top class race and it was yonks ago when it was a handicap but quite rightly it got turned into a Grade One and they have been rewarded with a proper Grade One race.
“There was the odd year when Sprinter Sacre was around and nobody was willing to take him on but this year nobody is frightened of anybody.”
Before Shishkin takes to the track Henderson could already have tasted Grade One glory with Jonbon, who will bid to give the Seven Barrows handler his first victory in the Close Brothers Henry VIII Novices’ Chase since the mighty Altior landed the 2016 renewal.
After signing off last season tasting Grade One glory in the Betway Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree the Walk In The Park gelding, who is a full brother to Douvan, made the perfect start to life over fences with a stylish victory at Warwick last month.
Although Henderson expects the J P McManus-owned Jonbon to prove ‘hard to beat’, he insists he is taking nothing for granted.
He said: “I’m not exuding confidence as I think for any novice Sandown is quite a big test but to be fair Warwick wouldn’t be the easiest in the world either and he jumped very well that day for his first run over fences.
“He schooled this morning and he was fantastic. We are all very happy. The ground won’t worry him as he likes good ground.
“Sandown is a unique test. Once you turn down that back straight jumping is at a premium. Once things start to go wrong down there they can go very badly wrong. We have all seen a lot of very good horses get in a bit of a muddle but he is a pretty sensible horse.
“I know he sweats a lot before his races and he will be on his toes but when he is racing he has got a very good sound racing mind. I don’t know if there is anything that will give him a lead, but if there isn’t it doesn’t matter as he perfectly happy making just as he is perfectly happy being dropped in. He is very versatile like that.
“I think it is another test and it is another day and it has always got its pressure. There will be nerves but I believe in him and you would like to think he would come on for Warwick.
“He was very good there and if he does that again and improves a bit he should be hard to beat.”
Reflecting on his debut over fences Henderson was pleased to see the six year old given a proper test by fellow Grade One scorer Monmiral.
He added: “I think the fact that Monmiral took us on from the word go and for two novices to jump the first five fences as they did was great.
“Normally you would warm up for a race and they wouldn’t be in a great rush early on. Monmiral went out there to test Jonbon and they went pretty quick over those first five so it was a good test. The race was pretty much over at four out as they had gone a pretty good gallop and Jonbon was still merrily going along on his own. The good thing was that they tested us over the first half mile at speed.”
Although Henderson is confident that Jonbon will get further he admits to being happy at sticking at two miles for the remainder of the current campaign.
He added: “Jonbon would undoubtedly get more than two miles but he has got bags of pace at the same time.
“At the moment, unless anything happens in his next two or three runs that suggest he ought to have another half a mile, I would have every intention of staying over two miles for the season.
“If he wants another half we can give it to him and we wouldn’t be frightened to.”
There has often been plenty of talk around the £570,000 connections paid to secure Jonbon. However Henderson feels he has now more than justified that price tag and should be judged on his own merits.
He added: “I think he ought to be allowed to throw away what he cost. It is getting a bit repetitive and a bit boring. I think he has done enough to justify he is the horse what he is on his merits not because of what he cost.
“Yes, there was a lot of pressure when he first ran in a bumper and his first novice hurdle and a lot of people were probably waiting to laugh but he has proved himself now and I think he is entitled to run without that what he cost tag.”
While Henderson has been privileged to have possessed some of the best two-mile chasers in recent seasons he believes Jonbon still has a way to go to reach that level, but he remains confident in time he will join the likes of Altior, Sprinter Sacre and Shishkin.
He added: “I think you can just say we are very lucky boys as they don’t come out of magic boxes as you know.
“They are hard to find. I’m not putting Jonbon in there yet, as he has a long way to go, but to have had Sprinter, Altior and Shishkin in consecutive years you are very lucky.
“Let’s hope this fellow can join them.”
Nicky Henderson on Thursday said he “couldn’t rule out” a trip to Ireland with Constitution Hill – but feels the Cheltenham Festival is the ideal location for a showdown between his stable star and reigning two-mile champion Honeysuckle.
Constitution Hill made an impressive return to action with a front-running 12-length demolition of stablemate Epatante in last Saturday’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle, following on from his 22-length verdict in the Supreme at the Festival back in March.
The unbeaten five-year-old is a general 4-7 favourite for next year’s Champion Hurdle ahead of Honeysuckle, the winner of the Cheltenham highlight for the last two seasons who has yet to be topped in 16 career starts.
Honeysuckle is due to kick off her campaign in Sunday’s Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse – a race she has won for the last three years before going on to Irish Champion Hurdle glory and then Cheltenham success.
Henderson is targeting the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle with Constitution Hill at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, but admits plans in the new year are yet to be decided and while an early clash with Honeysuckle at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival is not completely off the table, the Seven Barrows trainer would prefer the headline clash to take place at Cheltenham in March.
He said: “I adore Honeysuckle, she is absolutely fabulous. We thought about going to Punchestown last year to take her on with Constitution Hill, but Peter Molony (racing manager to Honeysuckle’s owner, Kenny Alexander) quite rightly said to me ‘how would you feel if you were responsible for slaying Bambi!’.
“This year we are going to meet, I hope, because everybody wants to see it and it would be lovely if it was in March.
“We’ve a programme now that only takes us up to Christmas, it becomes more difficult after it and you couldn’t rule out a trip to Ireland because I can’t see the Kingwell (at Wincanton on February 18) being a great race for him and my favourite race, the Contenders at Sandown, has been thrown away.
“Consequently there’s Haydock’s Champion Hurdle Trial on January 21 which is a possibility but that really is about it, so it’s quite difficult.
“It’s either no more runs or…I can’t see the Honeysuckle-Constitution Hill clash happening before Cheltenham. I won’t say it will be a pity if it did, but that would be the right place to have the showdown.”
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