Shishkin and Envoi Allen may be going down different paths, but racing fans can still look forward to a mouth-watering clash between two top-notch novices at the Cheltenham Festival thanks to the emergence of the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene (160p from 148p), who slammed Captain Guinness (149p from 146p) by eight and a half lengths in a very fast time at Naas on Wednesday.
Energumene went somewhat under the radar last season – the curtailment of the jumps season meant his only hurdles appearance was in a maiden – but he had impressed clock-watchers when winning a two-and-a-half-mile beginners' chase at Gowran Park by 18 lengths in November and he had no problem dropping back to two miles at Naas on Wednesday. The novice chase he contested may have been short of runners and lacking graded status, but it was probably the best race of its type run in Ireland this season as Captain Guinness and Blackbow had both won maidens in a style that identified them as likely to take high rank in the division.
It’s certainly possible to make a strong case that Energumene produced the best performance by an Irish novice chaser this season – Envoi Allen (156P) hasn't been forced to show his worth over fences – as he put up a powerful display of galloping, only needing a hands-and-heels ride to brush aside Captain Guinness in a time that was 47 lb quicker than that recorded by Epson du Houx over the same course and distance 30 minutes later.
Only Shishkin (165P) has produced a better performance than Energumene in a novice chase this season and a clash between the two looks on the cards in the Sporting Life Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival if Energumene comes through his next test in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown. Energumene should take plenty of beating in the Irish Arkle as, for context, stablemate Franco de Port achieved a rating 8 lb inferior when landing the Grade 1 novice at Leopardstown over Christmas.
Energumene can still be backed at 7/1 (from 14/1) for the Arkle, highlighting the fact that Shishkin (5/6) remains the one to beat, but it's unlikely that Nicky Henderson's chaser will face the sort of simple task that Simonsig and Altior were presented with.
The feature race on the card, the Grade 1 Lawlor's of Naas Novice Hurdle, also resulted in a significant market move for the Cheltenham Festival as Bob Olinger (140p from 136p) was slashed to 5/1 second favourite for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle on the back of his impressive six-and-a-half-length success.
The Henry de Bromhead-trained Bob Olinger wasn't street-wise enough when runner-up to Ferny Hollow on his debut over hurdles at Gowran Park in November but he has built on that encouraging performance, following up a wide-margin maiden win at Navan with this Grade 1 breakthrough.
Bob Olinger, who will be bidding to emulate Envoi Allen by winning the Ballymore after the Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle, achieved a rating of 140p that identifies him as one of the leading novices this season, placing him just 1 lb behind Bravemansgame (Supreme-bound Appreciate It sets the standard on 148p).
Runner-up Blue Lord – trained like Appreciate It by Mullins – did well to finish as close as he did given how hard he pulled for much of the journey. He will benefit from the drop back to two miles and it will be interesting to see if connections decide to take a shot at the Supreme.