Jockeys fail to find fault with the mounts as racefans prepare for a clash to savour at Ascot on Saturday
“Not too many,” Paul Townend said with a broad smile here on Friday when asked if he had spotted any weaknesses in Shishkin ahead of his long-awaited first meeting with Energumene in Saturday’s Clarence House Chase at Ascot. “I just see all the 1s alongside his name, so I’ll do a bit of homework tonight, ride the race another 20 times and hopefully we’re still finishing in front.”
Nico de Boinville, Shishkin’s rider, had earlier used words like “fantastic” and “electric” to describe Energumene. If the race was a title fight in Vegas – and there are certainly some similarities – the promoter would be tearing his hair out at the lack of trash talk to shift the last few tickets.
Not, of course, that there is any need for that here, as Saturday’s race is the most compelling head-to-head over jumps since Altior squared off against Cyrname, also at Ascot, in November 2019. Four runners are due to go to post for the Grade One contest, including First Flow, who won it 12 months ago, but for practical purposes, it is a match race between two potential superstars of the sport and perhaps the start of one of the great rivalries too.
Some match races have a champion-and-contender dynamic, as a battle-hardened veteran tries to keep the ageing process at bay. Victory for the younger runner tends to hasten the runner-up towards retirement.
But not this one: Shiskin and Energumene were foaled just over two months apart, in April and June 2014 respectively, and arrive at Ascot with near-identical profiles. Neither horse has tasted defeat over fences, both are in their second season as chasers and both are proven winners at Grade One level. All being well, this will be the first meeting of several, starting with a rematch at Cheltenham in March.
“We were not probably expecting to have this dust-up quite so early in the year, but so be it, there we go,” Nicky Henderson, Shishkin’s trainer, said on Friday. “If there is anything less than five lengths in it, you are going to take each other on again at Cheltenham, as there is nothing else to do.”
On the face of it, Saturday’s race is also another chapter in the Britain-versus-Ireland narrative over jumps, following Irish racing’s unprecedented shellacking of their British counterparts at Cheltenham last March. In the late absence of Energumene, Shishkin was one of just five British-trained winners in 28 races at the 2021 Festival, and he is currently one of just two British-trained favourites for a non-handicap at this year’s meeting.
But it is more nuanced than that, as Shishkin is owned by Joe Donnelly, an Irish ex-bookie turned property speculator based in Paris, while Energumene runs in the colours of Tony Bloom, who also owns his home-town football team, Brighton & Hove Albion. And he could, perhaps should, have been in the other camp, as Energumene won his sole point-to-point at Larkhill in Wiltshire, before being sold to race from Willie Mullins’s stable in County Carlow.
“This is as exciting a race as there has been for a long time and like everyone, we can’t wait to find out,” Patrick Mullins, the trainer’s son and assistant, said on Friday.
“Shishkin deserves to be favourite, he’s achieved more, he’s won a Supreme Novice and an Arkle. Our fella has to go and beat him, he has to step up, but he’s very unexposed and I don’t think anyone can have excuses. It should be lovely ground, it’s a very fair track and they’ve both had a run. May the best horse win.”
Energumene value for Ascot showdown
Energumene’s odds for his showdown with Shishkin in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot have tightened a little since the start of the week, but 13-8 is still a big price for Willie Mullins’s runner since all the available evidence suggests there will be very little to choose between the market leaders on Saturday.
Energumene (3.35) is rated just 1lb behind Shishkin by Timeform and his Grade One-winning form in Ireland last season is a match for Shishkin’s performances at Cheltenham and Aintree, both in terms of his dominance and on the clock.
Few contests have been so eagerly anticipated in recent years and either horse could produce a career-best performance and still finish second. At the current odds, however, there is only one to back.
Haydock 1.25 Probably a race to swerve for betting purposes as Jonbon will be long odds-on to defy a penalty and extend his unbeaten sequence under Rules to four races. He has scarcely come off the bridle to date but this is the best field Jonbon has faced by some way and Might I for one could certainly force the favourite to dig a little deeper.
Ascot 1.45 Several lightly raced and progressive handicappers in opposition here with Stellar Magic making most appeal at around 5-1 on just the fifth start of his career. He looked well ahead of his mark on his handicap debut at Haydock in December, when he finished within two lengths of the winner in a race run in a strong time.
Haydock 2.00 Tommy’s Oscar has been the standard-bearer for Ann and Ian Hamilton’s remarkable six-horse stable this season and will be a popular choice to continue his rapid progress through the handicapping ranks as he steps into Grade Two company for the first time.
Ascot 2.20 The tough and versatile Western Victory is the interesting one here on her debut for Emma Lavelle. The nine-year-old has several bits of form which puts her alongside or in front of Molly Ollys Wishes and My Sister Sarah, her main market rivals, and she may well get quite an easy time of it on the lead.
Haydock 2.35 Royale Pagaille took this race apart 12 months ago and has his ideal conditions again but he has another half-stone on his back and looks short enough in the market at around 5-2. Kalooki, by contrast, can be backed at around 12-1 to follow up a career-best at Doncaster last month from a 5lb higher mark. He could easily find that and more in first-time cheekpieces and over a longer trip that promises to suit.
1.10 Cat Tiger
1.45 Stellar Magic (nb)
2.20 Western Victory
2.55 Fanion D'Estruval
4.05 Charles Ritz
2.30 Lucky Man
3.05 Miss Candy
3.40 Umm Hurair
12.50 Minella Drama
2.00 Tommy's Oscar
2.35 Kalooki (nap)
3.10 Tokyo Getaway
3.45 Shaman Du Berlais
4.15 The Grey Falco
12.58 Marble Sands
1.33 Rhebus Road
2.08 Dame Du Soir
3.15 Yala Enki
4.25 Reve De Niamh
4.30 Lincoln Gamble
6.30 Old Port
7.00 Beat The Breeze
7.30 First Verse
8.00 Axel Jacklin
Ascot 2.55 Fanion D’Estruval was a convincing winner at Newbury in November and can further improve Lucy Turner’s excellent strike-rate for the Venetia Williams yard (seven wins from 22 rides since the start of the 2020-21 season).
Taunton 3.15 Time does not appear to be catching up with the 12-year-old Yala Enki just yet and he is poised to win this race for the third year running.