The case for Shishkin
Shishkin has been a strong favourite for the Sporting Life Arkle since he won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at last year's Cheltenham Festival and it has not taken long for him to establish himself as a top-class chaser. Shishkin only beat Abacadabras by a head on that occasion, but the winning margin does not do him justice as plenty went wrong. A race as competitive as the Supreme Novices' Hurdle would have represented a shock to the system for Shishkin, and he made a notable error at the third flight, while he was also hampered shortly afterwards and then again at the second-last. Only a top-class talent could have overcome such a troubled run, and Shishkin did exceptionally well to overhaul the runner-up close home, with the pair pulling 11 lengths clear of the remainder.
Shishkin was up against three inferior rivals on his chasing debut at Kempton in November, and that simple task was never going to tell us anything new about his level of ability. What it did show, however, was that Shishkin was a natural jumper, blessed with the athleticism to go long when on a stride but also be neat and clever when in close. The Grade 2 Wayward Lad Novices' Chase, a race Henderson won with Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig and Altior en route to the Arkle, was theoretically a much stiffer task, but the only race that developed was one against the clock as Shishkin proved in a league of his own.
Gumball set off at a strong pace and that provided the platform for Shishkin to show his superiority, roaring 13 lengths clear of his toiling rivals, gliding over the fences in the straight. It was hugely impressive on the eye and the evidence of the clock confirmed that Shishkin had delivered a top-class performance – he won in a time more than two and a half seconds faster than Nube Negra over the same course and distance on the card. The rating of 165P that Shishkin earned is the highest awarded to a novice chaser this season, while the large 'P' attached to that figure indicates there is much more to come under the right circumstances.
Shishkin completed his Cheltenham prep with another easy win in the Lightning Novices' Chase at Doncaster, again impressing on the clock, and he heads to the Festival having already achieved a level of form in advance of what it typically takes to win the Arkle.
The case against Shishkin
Shishkin may have already bettered the level typically required to win the Arkle – the median winning Timeform rating in the last ten years is 160.5 – but this is not an ordinary renewal. In fact, this year's Arkle is being hailed as the race of the meeting due to Shishkin's mouth-watering clash with Allmankind (159) and Energumene (163p), who are Grade 1-winning chasers and unbeaten in three starts over fences.
That is essentially the case against Shishkin. It's extremely difficult to pick holes in what he has achieved, but the presence of top-class chasers means there is little margin for error.
Energumene, in particular, is a formidable foe as he too has been winning with such ease that it's difficult to identify the ceiling of his ability. The excellent times he has been clocking means there is no question that he is a top-class chaser and a very live danger.
Energumene - still unbeaten over fences— Racing TV (@RacingTV) February 6, 2021
🏇 Three races
🥇 Three wins
🏆 Irish Arkle
A stunning performance from Energumene who laughs at his rivals in the Irish Arkle to complete a treble fort @WillieMullinsNH & @PTownend at @LeopardstownRC - a 1-2-3 for the trainer too 👏 pic.twitter.com/iW43FrRpah
View from connections
Trainer Nicky Henderson said: “It’s amazing how this race has gone from about three or four weeks ago, when Shishkin was odds-on and everyone saying it was going to be boring. All of a sudden Willie [Mullins] has come along with Energumene and that’s arrived on the scene and I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick. It was only three weeks ago it was boring, and now there’s a real fight on and people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week.
“I think Shishkin’s performance in the Supreme last year was pretty good because he did get literally taken into the car park at the second-last, so to get back in and win was a solid performance. He probably hasn’t had a lot of opposition over fences, but he’s been very clinical and accurate and he’s done it well every time. He comes in having got ten ticks on all three occasions, even if he didn’t have to beat anything very sensational, and he’s had a good run in.”
In most years the Arkle would look like a formality for a horse of Shishkin's ability and he would go off a long odds-on favourite, just like stablemates Simonsig (8/15) and Altior (1/4) did when victorious.
The presence of Allmankind and Energumene means that Shishkin does not face a simple task, but it is still one that he is expected to pass, confirming his status as one of the most exciting horses in training.
Shishkin has looked like a horse of rare ability from the outset and, in addition to the suspicion that he is the most talented horse in the line-up, he might be at a tactical advantage.
Allmankind and Energumene have posted their big ratings when making all and it is likely they will hinder each other unless a degree of tactical versatility is shown. There are no such concerns for Shishkin, who looks a straightforward ride and will be able to slot in wherever Nico de Boinville wants. This race could present him with the opportunity to post the huge rating he looks to have in his locker.