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Nicky Henderson’s chaser produces stunning finish at Ascot
‘Great champions find a way of winning and he is just that’
The long-awaited first meeting between Shishkin and Energumene lived up to every expectation here on Saturday, as the champion two-mile chasers in Britain and Ireland duelled around Ascot in the Clarence House Chase, setting up a final battle for the winning post that no one who was here to see it is ever likely to forget.
It was Shishkin who finally got to the line a length in front, having apparently been on the back foot for much of the race as Energumene cut out the running.
There was a sudden peck from Shishkin early on the second circuit which padded Energumene’s lead and Nicky Henderson’s chaser needed to be ridden by Nico de Boinville to close the gap as Paul Townend turned for home apparently going the better of the two.
Energumene had been backed from 13-8 to 5-4 in the hours before the race and traded at 1-9 in running as he powered towards the final fence, still just over a length to the good. Shishkin, though, has an exceptional finishing kick.
12.50 Our Jester
1.50 War Lord (nb)
2.25 Darver Star
3.00 Dashel Drasher
3.35 Pemberley (nap)
1.10 Saint Segal
2.15 Theatre Glory
4.00 Kimberlite Candy
The question now for backers of the 4-5 favourite was whether he could still find it at the end of such a fiercely run race.
He could, and De Boinville rode a wave of noise from the stands as Shishkin closed in on his rival and then swept into the lead a few strides from the line.
He crossed it a length in front, with First Flow, last year’s Clarence House winner, 18 lengths further back in third.
Fans and professionals alike were looking both forward and back as the two horses returned to unsaddle. Forward to their next encounter, probably in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham on 16 March, and back into racing history, to measure the moment against the great head-to-heads of the last 50 years.
“It was built up and it produced,” Henderson said. “A race like that goes back to the Grundy and Bustino days [in the 1975 King George at Ascot] and he [Shishkin] only lives about four boxes from where Grundy did [at Seven Barrows in Lambourn].
“They [De Boinville and Townend] said to each other going down the hill, ‘We’re flat to the boards’. It had to be that, there was no point hiding.
“There were moments it looked as if we weren’t going as well, but he stays very well. The great thing is they’ve both come home safe and well … and there’s going to be a rematch.”
Willie Mullins, Energumene’s trainer, was also looking forward to the Festival while finding reasons why it could be difficult for his horse to turn the form around.
“We have no excuses,” Mullins said. “We ran a cracker, jumped well and did everything right. I was watching my own horse but Shishkin made two mistakes, I think, so that would leave you to think we have a bit to go yet before we beat him.”
Shishkin was a shade of odds-against for the Champion Chase before Saturday’s race but is now top-priced at 8-11 with Unibet, while Energumene can be backed at 3-1 for one of the few races at the Festival that Mullins has yet to win.
The one-length margin here on Saturday was a result to warm the handicappers’ hearts, as it reflected exactly the 1lb difference in the two horses’ ratings beforehand: 172 to 171.
Both are eight-year-olds with – all being well - two or three seasons of top-flight competition still ahead, and even if Shishkin and Energumene never meet again, we will always have Ascot.
Cheltenham, though, with six or seven times as many racegoers in the stands, promises to be better yet.
Pemberley the pick in Surrey National
The Sussex National at Plumpton this month looks like the strongest form before the Surrey National on Sunday, the most attractive race by far from a betting point of view on the final afternoon of the Winter Million meeting at Lingfield.
Go Whatever was seven lengths in front of Pemberley (3.35) there, responding well to a first-time visor, but he is 7lb worse off for the rematch and that could make all the difference on the stamina-sapping ground.
Lingfield 1.20: Ballygrifincottage fully justified Dan Skelton’s decision to pitch him straight into Grade Two company for his hurdling debut, finishing six lengths behind Blazing Khal at Cheltenham in December. Normal improvement should give him the beating of the more experienced Fameaftertheglory.
Lingfield 1.50: War Lord was no match for leading Arkle contender Edwardstone in a Grade One last time but a repeat of his form at Carlisle in November could well be enough here.
Lingfield 2.25: Just three runners for a £100,000 race, though all have a serious chance. Marginal preference is for Darver Star, who returned to something like his best form at Punchestown last month, pulling 20 lengths clear of the runner-up in a decent time.
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Thurles 2.40: Minella Melody was very useful over hurdles last season, finishing seven lengths behind Stormy Ireland in the Mares’ Champion Hurdle at Punchestown in May, and is the type to be as good, if not better, over fences.
Lingfield 3.00: Bristol De Mai has his ground but is still a difficult horse to back with confidence after an error-strewn performance before being pulled up in the Betfair Chase in November. The consistent Dashel Drasher, with just 1lb to find on the official ratings, looks the better proposition at around 3-1.
Thurles 3.15: All four runners have at least one Grade One win to their name over fences but Allaho, last year’s impressive Ryanair Chase winner, looked as strong as ever on his seasonal reappearance in the John Durkan and progressed from race-to-race last year.