Energumene bids to extend his winning sequence at Punchestown – and in the process set the scene for what promises to be a titanic clash with Shishkin at some stage next season.
Owned by Brighton & Hove Albion football chairman Tony Bloom, the Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old put down a real marker for championship honours when winning the Irish Arkle in tremendous fashion at Leopardstown in February.
All the talk then after his third win in as many chase starts was of the upcoming ‘race of the week’ in the Arkle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham against Shishkin.
But in the end a setback put that on hold, and Nicky Henderson’s novice star duly won with ease in Energumene’s absence.
Mullins is happy again with Energumene, having conceded at one stage he thought his season could be over.
The Closutton handler said: “Energumene had a little mishap before Cheltenham, and I thought that was him for the season, but he recovered quickly.
“I was trying to get him ready for Fairyhouse and then I felt it wasn’t fair on the horse to go to Fairyhouse, so I said I’d wait for Punchestown.
“He’s been fine since, so I’m looking forward to getting him out.”
Just four rivals take on Paul Townend’s mount, chief among them Henry de Bromhead’s Captain Guinness – who fell in the Irish Arkle and was then third to Shishkin at the Festival, some 13 lengths adrift, having been involved in a duel up front with Allmankind.
De Bromhead hopes for better this time.
He said: “I don’t think we saw the best of him – the pair of them went a gear too fast throughout.
“I said to Rachael (Blackmore) ‘could we commit’ – and I didn’t think anyone could go with us – but obviously Allmankind did. I probably got her too committed, so it was my fault. It didn’t work out, so we’ll see how we get on.”
Mullins has a second challenger in Fairyhouse Grade One scorer Janidil, while Zarkareva gives the De Bromhead team two chances. The field is completed by the Joseph O’Brien-trained Embittered.
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Shishkin maintained his unbeaten record over fences with a workmanlike performance in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree.
Nicky Henderson’s exciting prospect may not have been as impressive as in previous races, but the 1-8 favourite got the job done to complete the Cheltenham/Aintree two-mile novice Grade One double after taking the Arkle Trophy last month.
Gumball made the running until Nico de Boinville decided to go on some way from home.
Funambule Sivola put in a brave bid, but Shishkin was too good and went on to win by three and a quarter lengths in what was a good time.
Shishkin was left unchanged as 6-4 favourite for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase with the sponsors and Coral, while Betfair and Paddy Power kept him at 5-4.
Henderson, who also did the double with Chantry House, said: “It’s always difficult after Cheltenham to know how much to do with them. Obviously they are fit, but the team have done great because they came here in pretty good nick. Both are very good novices though, they’ve had pretty nearly perfect seasons.
“Nico said he could have done with a lead for longer. Gumball usually goes a solid gallop, but he didn’t today. He’s a very laid-back horse and at home you don’t see the speed you see on track. He’s got a wonderful temperament and I suspect he was just getting lonely. Fair play to the second, though.
“It’s amazing how quick he gets to the other side of a fence, it’s a very effective technique but it is a bit unusual.
“He won’t go to Punchestown, doing the two is difficult, doing the three, you need to be Sprinter or something, who did it one year.
“You’d like to think it will be the normal two-mile route next year, and I’d like to think Altior is at Sandown in two weeks. If they meet next year, they have to meet.
“It’s amazing we’ve gone from Sprinter to Altior and this lad is going the right way the whole time.”
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The world’s greatest steeplechase will take place in front of empty grandstands this afternoon for the first and hopefully only time in its history.
The Randox Grand National is the natural highlight of the final day of Aintree’s three-day spring meeting – a card which also plays host to three Grade One contests, but was lost last year to the coronavirus pandemic.
And even though only participants, owners and essential personnel will be on track, the one race of the year that really captures the imagination of the wider public is back.
Before the main event, potential stars of the future will do battle in the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, while Arkle Chase winner Shishkin undoubtedly takes centre stage in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase.
The Ryanair Stayers Hurdle also promises to be a fascinating affair, with familiar rivals Paisley Park and Thyme Hill meeting again after their Cheltenham Festival clash was scuppered by a setback for the latter.
Then it is the big one, as the afternoon climaxes with the National, where Cloth Cap heads a field of 40 for the famed Aintree marathon and is set to head to the famous start as one of the shortest-priced National runners ever.
Can Ballyadam bounce back?
Ballyadam was well-beaten when taking on Appreciate It in the opening race of the Cheltenham Festival, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, but his nemesis is not in the picture this time as he lines up in the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle. My Drogo, the mount of title-chasing jockey Harry Skelton, seems to be his chief rival, but Ronan McNally’s Dreal Deal is on a steep upward trajectory that is yet to reach a plateau.
Shishkin set to shine
Shishkin was unchallenged when taking the Arkle at Cheltenham, happily seeing off the likes of Allmankind and Eldorado Allen. Neither will oppose him in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase, with Philip Hobbs’ Gumball looking to be his most worthy rival out of the small field of five contenders. The race seems to be his for the taking.
Paisley and Thyme meet again
Thyme Hill was ruled out of the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham due to a minor muscle strain, but he is back in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle. He will cross paths with his old foe Paisley Park, who was third in the Cheltenham contest behind Flooring Porter and Sire Du Berlais. The two have met twice before this season, with Thyme Hill coming out on top in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle before Paisley Park exacted his revenge in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. Also in the mix is Dan Skelton’s Roksana, who was third behind the big two at Ascot.
Can Cloth Cap be topped?
Jonjo O’Neill’s Cloth Cap is the red-hot favourite for National glory, but 39 other runners, 30 fences and four and a quarter miles stand in his way. Burrows Saint, Discorama, Any Second Now and Minella Times – the mount of Rachael Blackmore – are bidding to continue the Irish dominance witnessed at the Festival, while Welsh hopes are represented by Potters Corner and the English attack is bolstered by Tom Lacey’s out-and-out stayer Kimberlite Candy.
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Shishkin bids to crown his faultless campaign with victory in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree.
Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old has been foot-perfect in winning each of his four starts over fences to date – most recently dominating his rivals to provide his trainer with a seventh success in the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham.
Shishkin is the latest in a long line of crack two milers off the Seven Barrows conveyor belt, following the likes of Remittance Man, Sprinter Sacre and Altior – but that remarkable lineage is something Henderson does not take for granted.
“We’ve been very, very lucky,” he said.
“Sprinter Sacre was the horse of a lifetime, and no sooner had he retired then Altior turned up.
“Altior hasn’t finished yet, but maybe we have another one in Shishkin – they are properly top-class, two-mile chasers.
“They’re exciting races and exciting horses, but you do get a bit edgy with them.”
Shishkin will be long odds-on to see off four rivals on his first visit to Merseyside on Saturday, with Henderson not expecting the track to pose any problems.
He added: “Shishkin proved he is as good as we thought and hoped (at Cheltenham). He did what everybody was looking for, which does make you sleep better.
“Aintree and Cheltenham couldn’t be more different if you tried. Aintree is much more a speed track – but this is a sharp horse, and I have no desire at the moment to go up in trip.”
Elvis Mail (Nick Alexander), Funambule Sivola (Venetia Williams), Gumball (Philip Hobbs) and Longhouse Sale (Dan Skelton) are Shishkin’s four opponents.
Grade One honours are also up for grabs in the preceding Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle.
Leading contenders for the home team include Skelton’s My Drogo and the Donald McCain-trained Minella Drama, while Henry de Bromhead’s Ballyadam and Dreal Deal from Ronan McNally’s yard carry Irish hopes.
Ballyadam steps up to two and a half miles after finishing a distant second behind regular rival Appreciate It in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Chris Richardson, managing director for owners Cheveley Park Stud, said: “We just thought that the ground would be suitable – and while the trip is an unknown, it will hopefully tell us where we should be heading going forward into next year.
“We thought we might be better coming here, rather than going to Punchestown and potentially bumping into Appreciate It for a fourth time this season!
“We’re on a learning curve at the moment. But he’s in good form according to Henry, so we’ll see how we get on.”
Dreal Deal has won his last six starts over hurdles and on the Flat combined, providing McNally with the biggest success of his career in the Grade Two Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown in February.
The six-year-old missed an intended trip to Cheltenham after McNally’s string was hit by aspergillosis – a reaction caused by a form of mould – and the trainer admits only time will tell whether he is back to his very best.
“We’ll only know after the run. It’s obviously not ideal what’s happened, but he’ll go and take his chance – and we’ll hope for the best,” said the Armagh-based trainer
“His preparation since Punchestown has been poor. But at the same time it was poor going to Punchestown, and he was still very good.
“If he can run up to the Punchestown form it would give him a fair chance.”
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Emma Lavelle reports Paisley Park firmly on course for a likely rematch with Thyme Hill in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle at Aintree.
The Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill came out on top when the pair first met in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in November, before Lavelle’s stable star reversed the form in an epic Long Walk at Ascot the following month.
A third clash was on the cards in last month’s Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but Thyme Hill missed the race through injury, while Paisley Park had to settle for an honourable third in his bid to regain his crown.
The pair are among 18 entries for this weekend’s Grade One contest.
Lavelle said: “Paisley Park is very much an intended runner on Saturday. He’s in good form and it’s all systems go.
“Aintree is obviously a different type of track to Cheltenham, but I’m very happy with how he is and I’m looking forward to the rematch with Thyme Hill and a few others.
“He’s won over two and a half miles at Aintree and I don’t think tracks really matter to him, to be honest.
“He’s definitely a bit sharper all round since he ran at Cheltenham, so hopefully it will work out on Saturday.”
Tom O’Brien is booked to partner Thyme Hill following the retirement of regular rider Richard Johnson. O’Brien guided the seven-year-old to a debut success on his racecourse debut in a Worcester bumper in 2018.
Other contenders include last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle winner Lisnagar Oscar and Dan Skelton’s mare Roksana, who was narrowly beaten by If The Cap Fits – also in the mix this weekend – in the last running of this race two years ago.
The first of three Grade Ones on Randox Grand National day is the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, for which 22 horses are engaged.
The likely favourite is the Paul Nicholls-trained Bravemansgame, who was best of the British when third behind Bob Olinger in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Ballyadam (Henry de Bromhead), Dreal Deal (Ronan McNally) and The Shunter (Emmet Mullins) are potential Irish challengers.
The brilliant Shishkin will face a maximum of eight rivals when he bids to round off a flawless campaign with victory in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase.
Nicky Henderson’s runaway Arkle winner will be doubtless be a red-hot favourite to make it four from four over fences with another top-level triumph under Nico de Boinville.
Arkle runner-up Eldorado Allen could take him on again, as could the fourth Allmankind.
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Shishkin is set to lead Nicky Henderson’s squad into battle at next week’s Randox Grand National Festival at Aintree.
The Seven Barrows handler assembled what he views as a “pretty solid team” for the three-day meeting, which did not take place last season because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Henderson admits Aintree will have a very different look to it this year without the usual crowds, but he is nevertheless looking forward to making the trip to Merseyside.
He said: “We’ve had great days at Aintree. It’s always been tremendous fun and everyone is incredibly hospitable.
“The atmosphere is great – it’s a bit more relaxed than Cheltenham.
“It’s not going to be the same as normal years, obviously – but it’s enjoyable and I think we’ve got a pretty solid team.”
The undoubted star of the show as far as Henderson is concerned is Shishkin, who extended his unbeaten record over fences to four with a runaway success in the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham last month.
The seven-year-old will bid to round off his flawless campaign with another Grade One win in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase on Saturday week.
“He was very good at Cheltenham. I think it was a relief as much as anything,” Henderson added.
“He was very professional. He has a different jumping technique to some horses – he’s very quick and gets from A to B without you noticing he’s done it.
“This is the obvious place to come. I don’t see there’s any reason to go any further than two miles at the moment as he is a sharp horse.
“He won’t go to Punchestown. Shishkin would finish his season here, I hope.”
Henderson’s pair of Chantry House and Fusil Raffles finished first and second respectively in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.
However, they are set to be split at Aintree, with Fusil Raffles sticking to two and a half miles in Thursday’s Sss Super Alloys Manifesto Novices’ Chase and Chantry House stepping up to three miles for the Betway Mildmay Novices’ Chase the following afternoon.
Henderson hopes two of Ireland’s star novice chases, Monkfish and Envoi Allen, will be staying at home, adding: “We’ve read that Monkfish and Envoi Allen are going to take each other on at Punchestown, unless it’s an April Fool!
“I hope they do and we can all go round amongst ourselves at Aintree.”
The multiple champion trainer is planning to step Mister Fisher up in distance for the opening afternoon’s Betway Bowl.
The son of Jeremy, who was pulled up in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, is likely to have plenty on his plate, however.
Henderson said: “We’ve been dying to try him over three miles – it’s always looked exactly what he wanted.
“There’s talk of Tiger Roll running and I gather A Plus Tard may possibly come, so there’s going to be a lot of Irish competition still, although I think we’re all rather hoping a lot of them will stay at home for Punchestown and not travel again!
“It will be a good race, but I think three miles on good ground at Aintree will suit Mister Fisher and I’m keen to run him.”
On the same day, Buveur D’Air will bid for a second win in the Betway Aintree Hurdle.
With connections deciding against bidding for a third Champion Hurdle success at Cheltenham, the 10-year-old will be running for only the second time since suffering a freak hoof injury in the 2019 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.
He finished second on his return from over a year off the track at Haydock in January.
“We kept him out of Cheltenham and I think an extra half a mile will help him,” said his trainer.
“He wouldn’t want fast ground, but he’s in very good form and schooled this morning and was as electric as ever.”
Henderson confirmed Heross Du Seuil an intended runner in the Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle on the opening day, while plans are more fluid for the exciting Dusart, who has not been seen since his hurdling debut at Newbury in November.
Henderson said: “Dusart was very impressive at Newbury. He then had a freak accident and has been missing since. I actually didn’t think we’d get him back at all this season.
“He’s a smart horse, I hope. He could run in the Top Novices’ Hurdle over two miles, the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle over two and a half, or he might just wait for Ayr.
“Ronnie (Bartlett, owner) is coming to see him work on Friday and we’ll decide after that.
“Pipesmoker will almost certainly go for the two-and-a-half-mile race.”
One horse unlikely to be part of the Henderson’s Aintree battalion is Altior.
Having disappointingly missed the Cheltenham Festival for the second year in succession, the 11-year-old looks set to instead head for the Celebration Chase at Sandown, which he has already won three times
“He will do a bit of work this weekend, but it will be his first since the dirty scope that meant he missed Cheltenham,” said Henderson.
“I’m wouldn’t rule Aintree out, but I think it’s more likely he’ll wait for the Celebration.”
Asked whether he expected Altior to return next season, he added: “I hope so – there’s no reason why not.
“He’s as fresh as paint here and in great form.”
While Henderson has famously never won the Randox Grand National, he has won the other big race over the famous fences – the Topham Chase – on five occasions.
This year he plans to run Caribean Boy, Lust For Glory, Morning Vicar and Precious Cargo, saying: “It’s easy going round (the National course) once, but getting round twice is a big problem!
“All four are intended runners. They’ve all schooled over National fences and all went well.”
On The Blind Side and Call Me Lord, meanwhile, could contest the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle on Grand National day.
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Impressive Arkle winner Shishkin is set to line up at Aintree’s Randox Grand National Festival next month.
The seven-year-old cantered home 12 lengths clear in the Grade One heat at Cheltenham and is due to be joined on Merseyside by fellow Nicky Henderson inmate Chantry House, who also grabbed top-level glory in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Festival.
Fusil Raffles was second in the Marsh for Henderson and he is also pencilled in for Aintree, while Epatante, who finished third in defence of her Champion Hurdle title, is set to clash again with her Cheltenham conqueror Honeysuckle at Punchestown.
“I’m hoping Shishkin, Chantry house and Fusil Raffles will all be going to Aintree – that is the plan,” the Seven Barrows trainer told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast.
“Epatante was probably slightly disappointing. I think she ought to have finished second, but she wouldn’t have beaten Honeysuckle in a million years. We’re probably going to go to Punchestown and give it another go.”
Henderson’s dual assault on the Cheltenham Gold Cup yielded little joy, with Champ never jumping and pulled up before the seventh fence, while Santini made a blunder at that obstacle and was pulled up after the 12th.
Henderson handler felt Champ was suffering from a physical issue, with Santini ultimately unsuited by the application of a first-time visor.
He added: “Champ, almost certainly, we know where the problem is – it’s in his back and he’ll be returning to Ireland ASAP for a bone scan. He has had back surgery before in the past and it almost certainly wants re-examining, so that’s all been put in place.”
“Santini schooled very well in the visor, but I have to say, in the race, he just didn’t face it. Some horses don’t, (but) you can’t tell at home. He didn’t like it, he’d schooled well and we thought it would make a big difference.”
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A topsy-turvy opening day of the Cheltenham Festival saw bookmakers endure mixed fortunes, though it could have been worse.
The situation looked bleak for the layers after favourites took three of the first four races to give backers a dream start.
Appreciate It (8-11) got punters off the mark in style with a facile victory in the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle for trainer Willie Mullins.
It was a similar story with the Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin (4-9), who had no trouble landing the odds in the Sporting Life Arkle Trophy.
Bookmakers pulled one back when Vintage Clouds (28-1) beat the 100-30 favourite Happygolucky in the Ultima Handicap Chase – but Honeysuckle (11-10) had punters on top again after the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
The layers were saved further punishment when 11-1 shot Black Tears got up in the shadow of the post to deny 10-11 market leader Concertista in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.
That proved a turning point, with Jeff Kidder’s success at 80-1 at the expense of 9-2 favourite Saint Sam in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle giving bookmakers another huge result.
Even though Galvin was only a 7-2 winner of the concluding Sam Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase, he was the least supported of the three market leaders.
“The last gasp win of Black Tears ensured bookmakers avoided one of the most costly Cheltenham Festival opening days in recent years, although earlier victories for well-backed favourites Appreciate It, Shishkin and Honeysuckle meant punters still had plenty to cheer about,” said Coral’s David Stevens.
“We saw very early on Tuesday morning which horses were proving most popular on the opening day of this very different Festival, with the five best-backed runners being Appreciate It, Shishkin, Happygolucky, Honeysuckle and Concertista, so it was looking ominous after the first two had obliged with the minimum of fuss.
“Overall we’ve ended day one with a sense of relief, as it could have been a whole lot more costly, although plenty of punters will start day two playing with our money.
It was a poor start to the four-day meeting for William Hill.
“The bookies had one of their worst first days of the Cheltenham Festival after three short-priced winners delivered for punters,” said their spokesman Rupert Adams.
“It could have been a lot worse if Concertista had won the Mares’ Hurdle.
“Our day started badly with Appreciate it, got worse with Shishkin and became disastrous when Honeysuckle delivered.”
Ladbrokes feared the worst halfway through the card until the big-priced winners came to their rescue.
Their spokesman Jon Lees said: “Given their short odds we were already bracing ourselves for a scenario in which the three best-backed horses of the day, Appreciate It, Shishkin and Honeysuckle, could hurt us if they obliged.
“The punishment could have been even worse if Happygolucky and Concertista scored as well, but thankfully Vintage Clouds brought some relief and we were shedding tears of joy when Black Tears got up in the final strides to grab the Mares’ Hurdle off Concertista.”
Betway had the better of the exchanges despite early results going punters’ way.
Their PR manager Chad Yeomans said: “Bookmakers one, punters nil after day one of the Cheltenham Festival!
“I have to say, I wasn’t so confident after the first two races with both Appreciate It and Shishkin bolting up, and had Happygolucky and Concertista both won, we would have been in a totally different state. Thankfully, with both of them being foiled, we’ve come out on top.
“The Paul Nicholls pair of Houx Gris and Next Destination – who were both the best-backed in the last two races – were our biggest losers, so with those also being beaten, the trading room floor is full of cheer.”
Paddy Power also reported a narrow lead for bookmakers.
“Having seen hotpots Appreciate It, Shishkin and Honeysuckle all justify favouritism, let me assure you there weren’t any black tears inside our trading room when the leading lady of the same name collared odds-on favourite Concertista in the Mares’ Hurdle,” said spokesman Paul Binfield.
“That was an important head, saving the industry a multi-million pay-out and despite Galvin not being a brilliant result in the lucky last, a couple of big-priced winners, including an incredible 80-1 poke, have helped us into a slight lead going into the second day.”
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Honeysuckle extended her flawless record to 11 runs and 11 wins as she cruised to an unchallenged six-and-a-half-length victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Remaining on the outside of the field for most of the race, Rachael Blackmore – the first female to ride the winner of the great race – asked the mare to take the lead two flights from home and they easily powered past their rivals and up the hill to make Festival history.
The 11-10 win was one of a handful of victories for favourites on day one of the Festival, with Willie Mullins’ 8-11 shot Appreciate It opening the meeting with a facile 24-length victory in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin then justified his price of 4-9 when comfortably taking the Sporting Life Arkle Novices’ Chase with 12 lengths to spare.
There were some surprises, however, with Sue Smith’s Vintage Clouds bagging the Ultima Handicap Chase at 28-1 on his fifth attempt, and Noel Meade’s Jeff Kidder landing the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at massive odds of 80-1.
Picture of the day
Quote of the day
“Rachael is a brilliant rider on any horse and Honeysuckle is just a brilliant horse. The combination is deadly – it’s the perfect storm” – Henry de Bromhead on Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle after their Champion Hurdle success.
Performance of the day
Despite the much-anticipated clash with Energumene never materialising, Shishkin still managed to demonstrate his superiority in the division with a dominant success in the Arkle. The seven-year-old jumped immaculately from the off and was hardly stretched in maintaining his flawless record over fences, with his nearest rival, Colin Tizzard’s Eldorado Allen, 12 lengths behind.
Ride of the day
Tasked with protecting Honeysuckle’s unbeatable reputation, Rachael Blackmore did not flinch under the pressure of piloting the 11-10 favourite and remained completely in control as she kept the mare on an untroubled path throughout the race. Asking her mount to soar clear of the other runners at precisely the right moment, Blackmore never gave Honeysuckle fans a flicker of a doubt as the pair made an 11th successive win look easy.
Wednesday’s action is headlined by the Queen Mother Champion Chase, with Chacun Pour Soi leading the field for the two-mile Grade One contest. He is set to take on reigning champion Politologue, with Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra and Kim Bailey’s First Flow others in the mix. Also on the card is the cross-country chase, where two-time winner Tiger Roll will attempt to retain his title after losing it to French raider Easysland last season. The concluding race is the Champion Bumper, where Willie Mullins saddles the undefeated Sir Gerhard and the highly-regarded Kilcruit.
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The Cheltenham Festival began on Tuesday – but it was unlike any we had ever seen before.
While the action on the track lived up to expectations with Honeysuckle winning the Champion Hurdle, the red-hot bankers Appreciate It and Shishkin taking the first two races and even a popular grey hitting the target in Vintage Clouds, it was hard not to notice the eerie silence in the cavernous grandstands.
Prestbury Park is the perfect place to house a huge crowd, a natural amphitheatre of a place surrounded by the glorious Cleeve Hill. Everything about it screams prestige.
To be on course when Rachael Blackmore guided Honeysuckle to a dominant display in the feature was a true privilege, and the few who were there did their best to make as much noise as possible – but understandably with such limited numbers, in such a massive arena, it did not sound very loud.
It is such a shame for Blackmore, who should surely no longer be referred to as a ‘female jockey’, that she was denied the welcome in by the punters – and given she was backed into 11-10 favouritism, the acclaim would surely have been even more raucous than usual.
But as those involved in the industry keep insisting, we are lucky enough to be racing when other sectors are on their knees.
With the spectre of last year’s meeting even taking place as it did still looming large – and hot on the heels of the Gordon Elliott story – racing had some ground to make up in public perception.
The whole course was split into different areas, keeping the British and Irish competitors separated, and maintaining Covid protocols.
There is no doubt that, while those in the enviable position of working here each year may moan about having to fight through crowds to beat deadlines, with the punters absent, it became blatantly obvious what they bring to the occasion.
With no Guinness Village, all bars and food outlets firmly closed and just the odd worker walking around before racing, you could have been at any weekday meeting staged behind closed doors since racing returned in June.
However, once the action started, we were reminded of what a special place Cheltenham really is.
The first race, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, as is becoming the norm, went to a Willie Mullins-trained hotpot in Appreciate It.
With a much smaller field than usual, Paul Townend was always in command, and the 8-11 favourite simply bounded clear – winning by a yawning 24 lengths and forcing Mullins to concede he must be a bit better than even he imagined.
“The way he finished the race today, he looks as good as any of our previous winners of the race – it was a Vautour-like performance,” said Mullins.
Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin had the unenviable moniker of being the home banker of the week in the Sporting Life Arkle – and while his trainer admitted that in having to rule Altior out of the meeting on Monday, he feared it might be one of ‘those’ weeks, there was never a moment of anxiety on the way around.
“We’d always hoped (to win like that), but you never expect,” said Henderson.
“It was strange – it will be all week without the crowds – but it doesn’t make it any easier watching them. Winners here are winners, though, and without the crowd they are still special.”
Shishkin is owned by Joe and Marie Donnelly, who have a small but select string at the meeting including the hat-trick-seeking Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup, and they donated £10,000 of their prize-money to the charity WellChild, who have partnered with Cheltenham this year.
Vintage Clouds rolled back the years, with Sue Smith’s 11-year-old winning the Ultima Handicap Chase at the fifth attempt – and although he would have deserved his ovation too, it would not have matched Blackmore’s.
Always in the perfect position, Honeysuckle sprang clear off the home bend to win by six and a half lengths from Sharjah, who had to settle for second again.
It is a result which will propel Blackmore outside the racing bubble into the wider sports world.
She said: “I’m speechless, to be honest – she’s just so incredible.
“I can’t believe we’ve won a Champion Hurdle. Kenny Alexander (owner) and Peter Molony (racing manager) are both at home with their families. It’s a pity they can’t be here today.”
That was the sentiment we all felt. While the racing was as incredible as ever, we were left hankering for absent friends.
There were also two winners that in other times would have added to Elliott’s tally.
Now in the care of the new boss of Cullentra House Denise Foster, Black Tears produced a telling late challenge in the Mares’ Hurdle, while Galvin won the National Hunt Chase for Ian Ferguson.
Jack Kennedy rode both – and regarding the absence of crowds, said: “To be honest, you’d only notice it walking out and walking back in.
“When you cross the line, it’s still the very same feeling when you ride a winner.
“It’s a shame there’s no one here, but it’s great that we’re able to keep going with it – and I’m delighted to get a couple of winners.”
While that sentiment probably rings true for most punters as well, it just somehow means more shouting one home on track – and there will be plenty counting down to the Cheltenham Festival 2022 already.
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Shishkin justified his prohibitive odds when taking his winning streak to seven with an easy victory in the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham.
Winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on this card 12 months ago, Shishkin is now unbeaten in four races over fences as he gave trainer Nicky Henderson a seventh Arkle – a race the Seven Barrows trainer has taken with stars such as Sprinter Sacre and Altior.
The 4-9 favourite was always travelling well in the hands of Nico de Boinville, as Allmankind and Captain Guinness made it a true-run race over the two miles.
Shishkin joined the two leaders at the third-last fence, setting sail for home and going on to score by 12 lengths.
Eldorado Allen picked up the pieces for second place close home, just ahead of Captain Guinness and Allmankind.
Shishkin was given a quote of 5-2 for next year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase with Coral and William Hill, while Paddy Power went 6-4.
Henderson said: “We’d always hoped (to win like that), but you never expect. It was strange, it will be all week without the crowds, but it doesn’t make it any easier watching them. Winners here are winners tough and without the crowd they are still special.
“We knew there was going to be plenty of pace, I didn’t know the other horse (Captain Guinness) would take him (Allmankind) on as well. But he’s got a high cruising speed and just sat on their tails.
“He came wide and had plenty of space, but he was impressive the way he came up the hill.
“We’ve had great days here in this race, Sprinter Sacre, then Altior followed him and it’s a shame he’s missing this week, but it’s extraordinary to find another. He looked as good as the other two did in this race today. He’s got a long way to go to match them, but you had to be delighted with what he did today.
“It was a different challenge today. We schooled on Thursday and he nearly hurdles his fences, he’s very quick which frightens you a little. He’s very fast, he’s always looked like a chaser but he’s definitely a two-miler, he’s just a natural.”
He added: “Yesterday was a horrible day (having to rule Altior out of the Champion Chase), the second year running. For the Pughs (owners) it was tragic, having to make that call was no fun at all and you worry about the week starting that way.
“We always say we’d settle for one and it’s nice we’ve got one on the board. I don’t know if we can enjoy it, but we can box on.
“Altior has a bacterial infection, he can’t give that to anybody, hopefully we can clear it up. In time for Aintree I don’t know, but he’ll easily be ready for the Celebration Chase. Sandown is probably the likeliest.
“Whether Shishkin runs again, I don’t know, but why not? That was only his fourth run over fences. That was the first big question he was asked and when you see an answer like that you think why not. Aintree is the only option, but it is a short break this year.”
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With the 2020 Cheltenham Festival beginning just as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to take hold, the four-day meeting was the last major sporting event to survive before the country was forced into lockdown and all public gatherings were cancelled.
Twelve months later the world is still not fully recovered and all sporting fixtures must take place behind closed doors, with the Festival no exception.
With no crowds to witness the lifting of the tapes in the very first race of the meeting, there will be no Cheltenham roar, nor will there be the famed reception that awaits winning horses when they return to the parade ring.
The Cheltenham Festival is as much about the top-flight racing as it is about the off-course atmosphere, however, and still promises to be of its usual calibre, despite the empty grandstands.
The first day is headlined by the Unibet Champion Hurdle, where last season’s heroine Epatante is poised to face the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle – on whom Rachael Blackmore could make history – and a resurgent Goshen.
The Sporting Life Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase looks at the mercy of Shishkin, although Allmankind will not go down without a fight.
Let battle commence…
Appreciate It – right from the start
It is a rare thing these days for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle not to kick-off proceedings with a Willie Mullins hotpot and this year is no exception, with Appreciate It having been a warm order since a terrific performance in Grade One company over Christmas. Ballyadam got closer to him at the Dublin Racing Festival, but while Appreciate It promises to be better over further – and fences – in time, all the evidence suggests there is little point in ignoring the obvious.
All eyes on Shishkin
Top of the bill is Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, who has built a flawless record over fences since triumphing in the Supreme at the Festival last season. The Mullins-trained Energumene was his chief rival following a highly-impressive display when taking the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown by 10 lengths, but was withdrawn on Friday after a suffering an injury. Dan Skelton’s Allmankind wears his heart on his sleeve in front, so the Henderson hotpot will still have to be as advertised to get the job done.
Honeysuckle in full bloom ahead of Champion showdown
Epatante bids to defend her crown in the feature race on the opening afternoon, after a three-length success 12 months ago. There is a question or two, however, after the Henderson runner disappointed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. She also faces strong opposition from Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle, who has yet to suffer a single defeat in 10 starts under rules and was a 10-length winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle. If she can get her head in front it will see Blackmore become the first woman to ride a Champion Hurdle winner. Gary Moore’s Goshen, who was agonisingly denied victory in the Triumph Hurdle last year when unshipping Jamie Moore at the final hurdle, looked to have bounced back to his brilliant best when easily winning the Kingwell Hurdle and has very much rejoined the reckoning off the back of that performance.
Concertista centre stage in Mares’ Hurdle
The Henderson, Mullins and Skelton yards will face off once again in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Mullins’ Concertista was a 12-length winner at the Festival last season and has since enjoyed two further big-race successes, stepping up in trip on both occasions to prove her ability over two and a half miles. Henderson’s Coral Cup winner Dame De Compagnie reverts to hurdles after unseating Nico de Boinville in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, while Skelton’s Roksana is back down in distance – having dipped her toe in the staying division waters before defeating Jessica Harrington’s Magic Of Light in the Warfield Hurdle at Ascot.
Paul Nicholls made a surprise late decision to reroute his unbeaten novice Next Destination from a prospective clash with Monkfish on Wednesday to the Sam Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase, which closes the card on day one. In the absence here of Royale Pagaille – who will sport the famous colours of Monkfish’s owners in Friday’s Gold Cup – it may prove a wise move. But Galvin will have his supporters too, following a run of four successive victories over fences. Now with Ian Ferguson after moving from Gordon Elliott, he also has strong Festival form in the book.
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Shishkin is all the rage to become the latest Nicky Henderson-trained star to claim victory in the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy.
First successful with Remittance Man in 1991, the Seven Barrows handler has now racked up a record six victories in the prestigious two-mile novice chase on the opening day of the Festival.
Sprinter Sacre went on to establish himself as one of the greatest chasers of the modern era following a runaway Arkle success in 2012, while Altior weaved a similar path to superstardom after striking Arkle gold in 2017.
Like Altior, Shishkin is out to double his Festival tally following victory in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – and having barely put a foot wrong in three starts over fences, the seven-year-old is long odds-on to enhance his already huge reputation.
“Everybody thinks these races are exciting, but I’m not sure we do!” said Henderson.
“There’s a lot at stake, and we have to sit and suffer.
“Our first Arkle winner was Remittance Man, who was a spectacular jumper. Sprinter Sacre was probably the most flamboyant of them all – and Altior was pretty deadly.
“This fellow has just been very good. I think Shishkin’s performance in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle was pretty good, because he was literally taken into the car park at the second-last, and to get back up and win was a pretty solid performance.
“He probably hasn’t had a lot of opposition over fences, but he’s been very clinical and very accurate and has done it well every time.
“He comes in with 10 ticks for all three runs, to be honest with you, even if he didn’t have to beat anything very sensational.
“He is in good form and has proven that he’s top-class – and he’s had a good run-in.”
Following the enforced withdrawal of the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene because of injury, the biggest threat to Shishkin appears to be the Dan Skelton-trained Allmankind.
A tearaway juvenile hurdler last season, the five-year-old has appeared more amenable since having his attentions switched to the larger obstacles, which has enabled him to win each of his three starts.
Skelton said: “I’m really happy with him and was really happy with his prep run in the Kingmaker at Warwick – it did its job.
“He’s fresh and well and ready to go, so we’re looking forward to it.”
In Energumene’s absence, Mullins relies on Franco De Port to provide him with a fifth Arkle success. He was 10 lengths behind his stablemate when runner-up in last month’s Irish Arkle at Leopardstown.
Captain Guinness (De Bromhead), Eldorado Allen (Colin Tizzard) and Numitor (Heather Main) complete the sextet.
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Appreciate It will face just seven rivals in his bid to get favourite-backers off to the perfect start at this year’s Cheltenham Festival with victory in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Runner-up to his stablemate Ferny Hollow in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago, the seven-year-old is all the rage to go one better on his return to the Cotswolds and provide trainer Willie Mullins with a seventh success in the traditional curtain-raiser.
Appreciate It is unbeaten in three starts over hurdles this season, including back-to-back Grade One wins at Leopardstown.
Mullins also saddles Blue Lord, who finished six lengths behind his stablemate when third at last month’s Dublin Racing Festival, while the runner-up Ballyadam is also in opposition again, having moved from Gordon Elliott’s yard to Henry de Bromhead.
The chief hope for the home team is Harry’s Fry’s unbeaten Tolworth Hurdle winner Metier, closely followed by Jonjo O’Neill’s Betfair Hurdle victor Soaring Glory.
De Bromhead’s second-string Irascible, the Alex Hales-trained For Pleasure and Grumpy Charley from Chris Honour’s yard complete the octet.
Shishkin is the undoubted star attraction in a six-strong line-up for the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy.
Last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle has not put a foot wrong over fences thus far and will be long odds-on to claim a second Festival win for Nicky Henderson.
Dan Skelton’s Allmankind can be expected to set a strong gallop, while Mullins will rely on Franco De Port following the enforced withdrawal of Energumene earlier this week due to injury.
Captain Guinness (De Bromhead), Eldorado Allen (Colin Tizzard) and Numitor (Heather Main) also feature.
Cepage heads a field of 16 declared for the Ultima Handicap Chase, with leading fancies Happygolucky and the ultra-consistent Aye Right both in the mix.
Mullins has dominated the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle over the years and once again houses the hot favourite in Concertista, with the Skelton-trained Roksana seemingly the biggest threat among her 10 opponents.
A maximum field of 22 will go to post for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, including the Mullins-trained Saint Sam, Joseph O’Brien’s Busselton and Paul Nicholls’ Houx Gris.
The concluding Sam Vestey National Hunt Chase has been rendered far more competitive following news likely favourite Royal Pagaille is instead set to bid for glory in Friday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.
In his absence, Galvin will head the market ahead of the likes of Escaria Ten (Denise Foster), Next Destination (Nicholls) and Remastered (David Pipe).
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For Nicky Henderson, the pressure of having horses at the Cheltenham Festival is not on the day but in the build-up.
His job is to get his team to the four biggest days in the jumps calendar in the best possible shape.
No one knows better than the master of Seven Barrows, who is the most successful UK trainer with 68 winners – the first coming way back in 1985.
He has good chances in four of the main events this year, with past winners Epatante and Buveur D’Air giving him a strong hand in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, Shishkin aiming to join the Seven Barrows trainer’s good record in the Sporting Life Arkle Trophy, Altior trying to regain his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown and Champ and Santini two hopes of giving him a third WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“The pressure bit is what we’re doing at home. It’s getting them there,” he said.
“It’s not so much what happens on the day, the last few weeks are an uncomfortable time. There are so many things that can go wrong.
“You’ve got to get it absolutely right. There are banana skins everywhere, and that is what we’re all nervous about – things that go wrong with your big boys.
“That puts us under pressure.”
The unpredictable British weather has not made life easy, either.
“The weather has been very variable. We’ve had as wet a winter as you can remember and a complete week of a freeze-up,” he said.
“It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had a few difficult times with the horses themselves. There have been little patches when I haven’t been totally happy, but at the end of the day it’s coming together.
“We’ve had to change our preparations a bit. There was obviously the moving of the Newbury meeting, which changed our plans quite a bit, and we’ve had to improvise quite a lot.
“We’d normally take quite a big squad to Kempton to gallop on the all-weather a fortnight before Cheltenham, but we’ve not been able to do that this year, which has changed our run-up plans.”
Despite the pressures and inevitable mishaps, the Henderson string will be a force to be reckoned with from day one – starting with high hopes in the Arkle and Champion Hurdle.
Shishkin bids to join Henderson’s elite band of Arkle Trophy winners which include Remittance Man, Sprinter Sacre and Altior.
His task has been made a little easier with the withdrawal of the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene, although Allmankind still presents a potent threat.
“It’s amazing how this race has gone from about three or four weeks ago, when Shishkin was odds on and everybody said it was going to be boring,” he said.
“I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick. Now there’s a real fight, and people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week. He’s got a real battle on his hands.”
Despite the absence of Energumene, there will still be a formidable battalion of Irish raiders for Henderson and the British team to cope with – a factor he is very mindful of, especially after watching the Dublin Racing Festival, where Mullins in particular was unstoppable.
He said: “They just came up with another blockbuster. You suddenly think ‘crikey, I thought I was going to win that’ and all of a sudden Willie has come up with something and what are we going to do now? We’ve got to do our best, it’s been the same for a few years.
“That scoreboard that is down at the bottom of the parade ring, when it’s got the English and the Irish flag and the numbers – it’s pretty daunting when the score is 11-5 or something. Then you feel you are fighting a losing battle, but I’m not going into this thinking we’re fighting a losing battle.
“We’ve got a lot of very good chances. We thought Shishkin was a pretty good banker to go into last year, and Altior was always in that situation. Sprinter was always in that situation – you always had something you hoped you could hang your hat on, whatever happened.
“You always say you’ll settle for one, and I mean it more than ever this year, because I think it’s going to be tougher than ever.”
Henderson has won the Champion Hurdle three times in the last four years, with Buveur D’Air (2017 and 2018) and Epatante (2020). The pair represent him again – but both have to come back from defeats.
“Epatante was disappointing at Kempton because she was very good in the Fighting Fifth. She wasn’t herself in the Christmas Hurdle,” he said.
“Obviously, she’s better than that. I think we’re back in the right place now.
“She looks wonderful. If we’ve got her back she’s got as good a chance as any.
“The ground at Haydock found Buveur D’Air out. I thought we were going to get to the winner, but he emptied a bit. He was entitled to get a bit tired after his time off – but it did him good, and he’s in good shape.”
On day two, Altior will attempt to reclaim thr Champion Chase crown he made his own in 2017 and 2018.
“It hasn’t been easy. Having been invincible, it hasn’t gone his way,” said Henderson.
“He is 11 now and he’s done very little wrong. One or two things have conspired against him.
Should Altior defy the odds then he would go close to matching the achievement of Sprinter Sacre, who overcame several problems to win a second Champion Chase in 2016 – three years after his first.
“With Sprinter – that was a miracle. I don’t think you could hope for two miracles, but this one would be very special if he could because he’s been a fantastic horse,” said Henderson.
Henderson named Sprinter Sacre’s second Champion Chase triumph as his most memorable day at Cheltenham.
“We’ve been very lucky. We’ve had some great days. You go back to See You Then (with three Champion Hurdle wins in the 1980s). I was wet behind the ears, it was so long ago, but I can remember it,” he said.
“I think you have to say, and a lot of people who were there on the day would say, Sprinter’s comeback in the Champion Chase was the most memorable day of my Cheltenham days … probably any day. It was an extraordinary scene.
“The public welcome and everything was unforgettable. It was very special.”
Long Run (2011) and Bobs Worth (2013) are Henderson’s two Gold Cup winners. He looks to Champ and Santini to give him a third.
Champ’s late surge to land the RSA Insurance Chase last year makes the trainer believe he will stay the distance.
“That was an extraordinary performance,” he said.
“It was sort of reminiscent of dear old Might Bite, where you thought he was out of it and not going to feature and from the second last to the last he was dropping back.
“It looked as though he was going to finish a moderate third jumping the last. I was focusing on those up front, and all of a sudden he came back into sight and swept past them – which proves an important thing, stamina.”
Santini was runner-up in 2020 but has to bounce back from defeats in all his three starts of this campaign.
“He’s had a difficult season,” said Henderson, who is saddened there will be no crowds because of Covid-19 restrictions but delighted the meeting is going ahead.
“It’s going to be very strange, because we are going to be sitting or standing and suffering throughout the build-up to the races on our own, with no owners and nobody to talk to and nobody to hold each other’s hands,” he said.
“It’s very sad that we’re not going to have the people there to share it with us – but it’s terrific that we’re racing, and that’s the most important thing.
“Television comes into its own, and we’ll show the world everything we’ve got.”
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