Royale Pagaille was a brave and worthy winner of the first Grade One race of the new British jumps season on Saturday but the abiding image of the weekend for many fans and punters was of Shishkin, the 8-13 favourite, planted at a right-angle to the running rail over at Ascot as the other three runners in the 1965 Chase galloped off into the distance.
Shishkin was the future once, and not that long ago. Having fallen at the second flight on his British hurdling debut in December 2019, he racked up a 10-race winning streak that included novice events over both hurdles and fences at the Cheltenham Festival and, in January 2022, a one-length defeat of Energumene in the Clarence House at Ascot that was an instant classic of the winter game.
Even in his near-unbeatable early pomp, however, there were occasional signs of a quirk or two, including the “flat spot” in several races that seemed to mark the point where Shishkin weighed up whether he had done as much as necessary for one afternoon. And while his attitude and courage made all the difference in that extraordinary race at Ascot, a 2-6 record since suggests that the effort of running down one of the best two-milers of recent years, having jumped the last with two lengths to find, took him to a place he does not want to revisit.
There are two immediate questions now, both for Nicky Henderson, Shishkin’s trainer, and for anyone thinking of backing him in the future. Why did he refuse to race on Saturday, and is it likely to become a habit, as it has in the past for talented horses including Vodkatini, Labaik and Mad Moose (whose “official” Twitter/X account teased on Saturday that “oh Shishkin, you’ll never be me, however hard you try”).
As Henderson pointed out in the aftermath, the start at Ascot sees horses galloping directly away from the racecourse stables, which could conceivably have been at the back of Shishkin’s mind. When horses get loose during trackwork in the US, they often gallop straight back to their barn, and it seems likely that many have a keen sense of where the safety of “home” is at any given time.
So the issue might not have arisen on Saturday if Shishkin had taken up his five-day entry in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, but it will now be a major cause for concern if he runs in the King George VI Chase at Kempton next month, where the start will once again require him to gallop directly away from the racecourse stables.
There will be no extra encouragement for Shishkin to raise a gallop at Kempton either, as the British Horseracing Authority announced just 48 hours before Ascot that with immediate effect, starters would no longer be allowed to crack a hunting crop behind the runners to persuade any reluctant starters to set off. “The hunting crop was previously used very sparingly,” the regulator said in a briefing to accompany the news, “and the Starts Review Working Group felt that there was no longer a need to continue to carry it during the starting process.”
The crop never made contact, but it had long been seen as not being a “good look” for the sport, with the casual Saturday afternoon audience in particular. That said, an 8-13 favourite refusing to race is a terrible look for the more committed punters whose day-to-day betting is just as important, so the timing of the BHA’s latest tweak to starting procedures was a little unfortunate.
The Injured Jockeys Fund and Irish Injured Jockeys, its counterpart in Ireland, will benefit equally from a new initiative launched by the Betfair betting exchange on Saturday, with an initial donation of £100,000 to the “Rachael Blackmore Serial Winners” fund due to be boosted by a further £5,000 every time Blackmore rides a winner up to and including Grand National day at Aintree on 13 April 2024.
Blackmore has ridden an average of 30 winners between November and April in the last five seasons, which could see the ultimate value of the fund rise towards £250,000.
The initiative is being launched alongside a short film about Blackmore’s rise to become the most successful female rider in National Hunt history.
“This is a very generous initiative and one that I’m excited to be a part of over the coming season,” Blackmore said. “The work of IIJ and IJF is vital in providing support services for jockeys past and present.”
The wait to find out if Shishkin’s mood has permanently soured is unlikely to be extended, as Henderson has an urgent need to get a run into him before the King George on Boxing Day, for which he remains a 6-1 shot. One intriguing possibility is a start in a handicap, and Shishkin, officially the top-rated British chaser in training, is among the entries for the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle on Saturday, where the three-mile start would again require him to race away from the stables.
Flawed heroes, of course, are often the most interesting type, while Henderson has a rare gift for getting horses back to their best after serious setbacks, perhaps the most famous example being Sprinter Sacre’s second Champion Chase victory in 2016, three years after the first.
Sedgefield 12.15 Recoup 12.50 Onestepatatime 1.20 Harper Valley 1.50 Take Centre Stage 2.20 Coup De Gold 2.50 Zuckerberg 3.20 Vanilla Dancer
Southwell 12.40 Generous Day 1.10 Star Flyer (nap) 1.40 Ned Cash 2.10 Stratton Oakmont 2.40 Telepathique 3.10 Ring Of Beara 3.40 God’s Own Getaway (nb)
Sprinter Sacre’s problems, though, were physical rather than mental, while Shishkin’s decision to down tools on Saturday has now “earned” him a Timeform squiggle – a badge of dishonour that, once acquired, can be devilishly difficult to shake off. One point is beyond argument, however. Shishkin’s next racecourse outing will be gripping from start to finish - even if it is over before it has begun.