Shishkin and Nico De Boinville win the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton. 27/12/2021 Pic Steve Davies/Racingfotos.com

Monday Musings: A Quick Look Back Before We Advance

With Boxing Day falling on a Sunday this festive season, the adjustments to the official handicap ratings for the entire Christmas to New Year period will be eagerly awaited by trainers and owners tomorrow (Tuesday) morning, writes Tony Stafford. I’d love to see the two-mile chase handicapper take full and realistic account of Shishkin after his flawless reappearance run at Kempton.

Equally, I’d expect him to allow him to take up the engagement in the Clarence House Stakes at Ascot, the sole early-closing UK jumps race in the coming three weekends, on January 22.

Nicky Henderson, having been vindicated by his decision to abort plans for the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown last month as Shishkin was not ready in favour of Kempton’s Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase on the second day of the Christmas meeting, now faces another conundrum.

“Do we avoid Ascot and a pre-Cheltenham encounter with Energumene?” will be Henderson’s question as he ponders whether to take on Willie Mullins’ unbeaten chaser who had been equally silky on his return in another Grade 2 race, the Hilly Way, at Cork earlier last month.

Shishkin’s disdainful mastery of Tingle Creek winner Greaneteen and Bryony Frost last week was so emphatic that Mullins’ comment that Energumene will take his place in the Ascot field so early in the piece might have been a tactic to try to inject a shade of uncertainty in the Henderson psyche.

The Ascot race, initially a handicap sponsored by Victor Chandler, had its reputation immediately cemented in 1989 when Desert Orchid won the first running under 12st, getting up late under Simon Sherwood to deny Panto Prince who received 22lb. The valiant grey got up having lost the lead when making a rare mistake at the final fence.

That contest is sure to figure high up among the many memories for Desert Orchid’s trainer David Elsworth, who recently announced his retirement after an outstanding career as a dual-purpose handler spanning half a century.

In its handicap years two other top two-milers to grace its honours board were Waterloo Boy and Well Chief, but when it became a Grade 1 conditions event, the quality rose to the top. Fields were small from the outset but most of the true greats of two-mile chasing were directed there and usually won the race.

Paul Nicholls, as with most steeplechases of the modern era has been a leading light, firstly with two wins by Master Minded , whose second triumph in 2011 was by the then minimum short-head in the face of a flying finish from Somersby, trained by Best Mate’s handler Henrietta Knight and ridden by Bryony’s elder brother, Hadden Frost.

In 2008, Hadden, in his time as a flat-race apprentice with Richard Hannon, and still with a 5lb allowance, won a claiming race at Lingfield for Raymond Tooth with a filly called La Colombina. Hadden had his best season with 32 the previous season and another 18 including La Colombina in 2008.

With increasing weight taking over – he already had a first jumps success before Ray’s winner - he quickly showed that father Jimmy’s talent had been safely passed on. That second place on Somersby came in the second of six consecutive seasons when he made double figures before retirement.

Bryony had her first rides in 2012-13 and for the last five campaigns she has clocked up between 36 and 50 wins every year, standing on 36 so needing 15 more by the end of April to achieve a career best.

She will have been hoping for one of the major wins associated with the Nicholls stable over the holiday period. While that didn’t work out, she clearly has the trainer’s full confidence to the extent that she shares almost equal standing in the Ditcheat team with stable jockey Harry Cobden.

Let us return to the Ascot race. After Master Minded, the next big name was the peerless Sprinter Sacre, a 1/5 chance when the race had to be transferred to Cheltenham in 2013. The oddity was that Sprinter Sacre and his equally lauded stablemate Altior each won it only once. Altior’s victory came three years ago as a 10-1 on shot in a three-horse race.

Gary Moore’s Sire De Grugy was the intervening horse between Sprinter Sacre and the race’s most prolific hero Un De Sceaux, three times a winner for Willie Mullins and even as an 11-year-old in 2020 good enough to share favouritism with Defi Du Seuil and finish runner-up as the Philip Hobbs star won his second consecutive Clarence House.

Last year it was Defi Du Seuil’s time, as sure as the years turn, to pass on the baton, this time to Kim Bailey’s First Flow while he, Defi, laboured home in fifth.

Un De Sceaux won 23 of his 34 career starts and considering his class and admirable durability, has a very proletarian pedigree. His sire is the little-known French-bred and -raced high-class hurdler Denham Red. That horse’s sire Pampabird never raced but his paternal grandsire Pampapaul certainly did. A top Irish juvenile, winner of among others the National Stakes for Sir Noel Murless’ younger brother Stuart, he was a classic winner at three.

Pampapaul sprang a major surprise when defeating subsequent Epsom Derby hero The Minstrel, and earlier Newmarket 2,000 victor Nebbiolo (from The Minstrel), in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.

More pertinently for the present day, and no doubt a factor in Willie Mullins’ admiration of him before he joined the team, is that he is also the sire of Energumene.  So we’re in for a treat. Here we have two horses with unblemished chase records at a similar stage of their development, each with one overall defeat on his card, facing up. Pistols at dawn: who will blink first? Is it too good to be true?

Encouragingly, neither trainer, unusually for Mullins at any rate, has an alternative at the initial entry stage. It cost £150 and to run it’s another £600, fair enough for the £160k prize which brings £85,000 to the winner.

But there is a supplementary on the Monday, so two weeks from today, and that will set back any takers £5,000. With a chance of either of the big two’s standing aside, it was sensible to sit back and wait as that sort of equation might be worth chancing.

I began by musing whether Shishkin’s rating will have been altered after Kempton. He went into the race 2lb higher than Greaneteen – 169 to 167 – and was receiving 3lb. I would expect a rise but knowing official handicappers’ propensity to fudge, would not be shocked if he gave him 171, the same as Energumene.

Already after only a nascent chase career, that figure puts the young Irish horse within 1lb of Un De Sceaux. I believe Shishkin has the potential to eclipse his brilliant predecessors Sprinter Sacre and Altior. I just cannot get out of my mind the way he gathers and then finds extra pace and strength to dominate his opponents in the closing stages.

Nicky had a great holiday, also winning the Christmas Hurdle emphatically on King George Day with 2020 Champion, Epatante. The re-match with unbeaten Honeysuckle is another to savour.

Honeysuckle did not appear over the holiday period so remains blissfully unbeaten and a sure-fire favourite to defend her title in ten weeks’ time – yes that’s all it is! But some of her prime Henry De Bromhead stablemates did appear and after the eclipse of Minella Indo at Kempton, A Plus Tard’s position as Gold Cup favourite is far less secure after his last-stride defeat by Gordon Elliott’s Galvin in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown.

While Elliott (15 wins from 94 runners) and Mullins (23 from 81) have been cleaning up over the past two weeks, De Bromhead has had the paltry return of just four wins from 74 runners. Envoi Allen did scrape home less than impressively dropped in grade and distance at Leopardstown but hardly enhanced his reputation either.

In mitigation, only three of the 74 started favourite, but it doesn’t take long for the betting public and more pertinently the people who frame the odds on which their bets are based to sense a problem. Watch, if not this space, certainly the day-to-day progress of a man who has performed, along with stable jockey Rachael Blackmore, the training equivalent of a miracle to join the big time so quickly and effectively.

As perhaps Henry is beginning to discover It is one thing to get up there, quite another to continue to repel the legions of expensively-acquired and brilliantly-prepared horses that the two incumbent top table teams can throw into the action year on year.

In the UK the news of Charlie Johnston’s now sharing the licence to train at Kingsley House, Middleham, alongside rather than assisting father Mark, certainly surprised me, but equally obviously, as most of the coverage suggested, nothing will change save the letter headings.

Certainly I do not anticipate any reduction in the flow of winners with what is nowadays the routine target for the team of 200 a season. It’s an amazing record and while Mark alone will never make the 5000 winners we thought was inevitable, it is equally unlikely that anyone will beat his score for many years to come.

Kingsley House is a remarkable operation and not least for one fact I’ve never forgotten of what Alan Spence, a long-standing owner, told me one day. He said: “I was telling <trainer A> that Mark is my cheapest trainer in terms of cost. He/she <so no clue there either!> said what are you talking about? He charges £xxx a day, much more than me!”

“I replied, yes, and when I get his invoice every month, even if a horse of mine had to have an expensive operation, it’s all on one line – everything included. When I get yours it runs to four pages with all the extras!”

Good luck to the new team, well actually the old team, not forgetting the wonderful Deirdre. So it’s Happy New Year especially to them, but also everyone else who takes the time to read these words.

- TS

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