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Shishkin is back

The message from Ascot yesterday was emphatic and unequivocal: Shishkin is back.

The primary concern going into yesterday’s Betfair Ascot Chase was that we would never see Shishkin in his pomp again.  And that concern was legitimate, evidence-based.  Unbeaten in his first seven runs over fences, an Arkle and a Maghull Chase and a Clarence House Chase in his swag bag, Nicky Henderson’s horse was pulled up in the Champion Chase last March in his eighth, and he could finish only third in the Tingle Creek Chase on his debut this season in his ninth.

One defeat can be just that, a one-off.  Two can be the beginnings of a trend, however.  A downward spiral.  And Shishkin is nine years old now, it is almost three years since he danced in in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Shishkin is fortunate in that, in Nicky Henderson, he has one of the most accomplished and experienced and decorated National Hunt trainers in the business in his corner.  Action was needed and action was taken.  Bone problem sorted, wind operation completed, tongue-tie fitted, and Henderson sent Marie Donnelly’s horse into the fray once again yesterday, happy that he was ready.

Popular opinion was split, as evidenced by the fact that, unusually, Shishkin was not sent off as favourite for yesterday’s contest.  It was the first time in his life that the Sholokov gelding wasn’t favourite for a steeplechase that he contested, and it was only the second time in his chasing career that he wasn’t sent off at odds-on.

Shishkin set off towards the back of the field, fifth of the six as they jumped the first fence.  But such was the enthusiasm with which he travelled and jumped, he made his way effortlessly through his field so that, by the time they raced into Swinley Bottom with seven fences to jump, he was tanking along in second place, up on the outside of Pic D’Orhy.

He travelled supremely well for Nico de Boinville up the side of the track, jumped to the front over the second last, and kept on strongly from there all the way to the line to win by 16 lengths in the end, with another seven back to last year’s winner Fakir D’Oudairies in third.

“The team can be proud,” Nicky Henderson told Sky Sports Racing afterwards.  “The vets have done a fantastic job.  We found this bone problem last year, and we’ve had a wind operation since the Tingle Creek.  And I think he’ll come on for today.  Nico said he just had a good blow going to the last.”

Bookmakers cut Shishkin’s odds for the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham to generally 11/10 and 5/4, and no bigger than 6/4.

“I loved the way today, he was straight into his bridle,” said Henderson. “And he was travelling the whole way.  In the Tingle Creek and when he was going around with Energumene last year in the Clarence House, he was off the bridle.  He was always in top gear.  The difference today was, we were always travelling and he was always loving it.  And that’s what I loved.  To see him back in his comfort zone the whole way around.”

Janidil’s odds for the Ryanair Chase, a race in which he finished second last year, were also reduced dramatically after he ran out an impressive winner of the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park.

Racing for the first time since he was pulled up in the Punchestown Gold Cup in April, Willie Mullins’ horse was held up last of the four runners early on, and delivered with a perfectly-timed run by Rachael Blackmore to lead on the run to the final fence.

“I was a little concerned,” Willie Mullins told Racing TV.  “I didn’t think he worked well during the week.  Rachael said she’d wait and have the last go of the whole lot, so that worked well.  He’ll probably go for the Ryanair now.”

© The Sunday times, 19th February 2023