Saturday's Clarence House Chase (15:35) at Ascot features the most keenly anticipated head-to-head of the season so far as the two best two-mile chasers in training lock horns.
Both unbeaten over fences, Shishkin (189p) and Energumene (188p) were scheduled to have their first meeting in last season’s Arkle but Energumene had to miss that clash when suffering a late setback. The pair head the betting for the Queen Mother Champion Chase which had looked like being when they would eventually clash for the first time, so it’s a welcome bonus that they’ll be taking each other on here first.
Both horses have built formidable records on each side of the Irish Sea for Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins respectively. Shishkin has won all ten of his completed starts – he fell on his debut over hurdles – while Energumene’s only defeat in eight outings came when third on his debut in a bumper.
In Energumene’s absence, Shishkin’s Arkle victory last season was the pick of his five wins as a novice, taking control of the race from three out and sauntering clear to win by twelve lengths. After missing his intended return this season in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December when failing to please his trainer – Shishkin was later reported to have scoped badly – he reappeared instead in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton later in the month. That race left no question about his well-being as he ran right up to his best in giving a ten-length beating to the Tingle Creek winner Greaneteen, briefly needing shaking up when the race began to develop in the straight but quickly going clear once in front.
There’s no doubt this is Shishkin’s stiffest task to date but with a rival of Energumene’s calibre and a potentially good pace to stalk, these are also just the right circumstances for Shishkin to prove himself better than ever.
With Energumene being a confirmed front runner there should be no hanging around despite the small field and it’s probably in Paul Townend’s interests to make this a good test as, over fences at least, Energumene is the more confirmed stayer of the two having won over two and a half miles on his chasing debut. The pick of his four wins as a novice last season came in the Ryanair Novice Chase at the Punchestown Festival where he didn’t need to come off the bridle to beat his now high-class stablemate Janidil by sixteen lengths.
Like Shishkin, Energumene impressed on his return to action last month when winning the Hilly Way Chase at Cork. Chief rival Notebook tried to make a race of it with Energumene, matching strides with him at times, but paid the penalty in the end, looking legless as he returned a tailed-off last. Notebook is the best horse Energumene has encountered so far, and while Shishkin is on another level entirely, like his main rival, it’s likely that the best of Energumene has yet to be seen.
This isn’t entirely a two-horse race, though, because last year’s winner First Flow (179) is a top-class chaser for Kim Bailey and a prolific winner in his own right. He was completing a six-timer when causing a 14/1 upset in a competitive renewal of last year’s Clarence House. Under an attacking ride from David Bass, he took on the eventual runner-up Politologue before drawing seven lengths clear of the former Queen Mother Champion Chase winner.
First Flow failed to confirm that form at both Cheltenham and Punchestown but he was right back to his best on his reappearance in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon last month. He saw out the longer trip well, while conditions were nowhere near as testing as for most of his earlier wins. He’s another who won’t want this to develop into too much of a test of speed, though by the same token taking on Energumene up front could well prejudice his own chances.
First Flow has the 'Horse For Course' Flag for his return to Ascot as does the Dan Skelton-trained outsider of the quartet Amoola Gold (165). He’s a smart handicapper who won the listed Byrne Group Handicap Chase here in October for the second year running before being touched off by Before Midnight in the Hurst Park Handicap Chase over the same course and distance. Without the cheekpieces he’s worn on his last two starts, he’ll be suited by the return to Ascot after underperforming at Cheltenham last time but, realistically, picking up any pieces is probably the best his connections can hope for.
Timeform Analyst’s Verdict:
Nicky Henderson's Shishkin faces his stiffest test yet over fences but is fancied to follow in the hoofprints of the stable's fomer winners of this Grade 1, Altior and Sprinter Sacre, and confirm himself the premier 2m chaser. Irish challenger Energumene also arrives unbeaten in this sphere and should ensure this is a race to savour, with last year's victor First Flow no forlorn hope either.
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