This was an equine prize fight. Two heavyweight two-mile chasers going toe-to-toe. Both big punchers looking for the knockout blow.
As pre-Cheltenham races go, the SBK Clarence House Chase was up there with the very best. Seldom do we see such a clash of the titans before March.
The parade ring had emptied ready for the showdown, Nicky Henderson was the last to leave, each step up to the main grandstand looked a shade heavier and wearier than the one before. You wondered what the toll had taken on him, such was the endless stream of phone calls and television interviews to promote the fight. Don King/Bob Arum, eat your heart out.
Enough of the anticipation. Energumene could not wait. A more slight, slender type than Shishkin, he set a furious gallop under Paul Townend and looked to have the others in trouble, especially when Nico de Boinville had to lift the Arkle winner’s head off the turf when he pecked at the sixth.
Two out and Willie Mullins’ charge looked to have brushed off Shishkin the way he brushed through the fences. But then Shishkin responded.
“Two out, it looked like we were on the ropes a little bit, but one thing this horse will do is fight for you,” said Henderson.
“Mind you, that is the biggest fight he has been in. For both of them it was the biggest fight they have been in.
“He certainly doesn’t give up and as Nico said going to the last ‘I thought I’d got him’. He picked up.”
That he did. And by the line he was going away.
“He obviously does stay two miles properly well,” added Henderson.
“But this was round one. We all know where round two is going to take place. Hopefully.
“Our jobs, Willie and I, is to get them there in one piece and have a rematch. It is very, very close, there is nothing between them, is there?”
There was a long-looking, widening length at the line and there was no doubt that Mullins knows he has to find more from Energumene between now and the Festival.
“We have no excuses,” said Mullins. “We ran a cracker, jumped well and did everything right.
“I was even shaking on the stand as the horses passed the post – it was a terrific race. Two good jockeys, two good horses played right down to the wire.
“I think Nicky gave the quote of the week when he said racing really wants this race, except for the two trainers – we were probably the two who didn’t want to see our champions beat.
“Maybe Shishkin didn’t jump as well as we did and whether there is more improvement in him, I don’t know. I was watching my own horse, but Shishkin made two mistakes I think, so that would leave you to think we have a bit to go yet before we beat him.
“Shishkin is not too bad around Cheltenham. You would have to think we are going to find it hard.”
Henderson was quick to put up his guard and was not going to be drawn in.
“When you are jumping that fast, you have got to meet everything spot on. You get lucky one day, you get unlucky another day,” he said.
“We made one peck going down the hill (the sixth fence), although I think we might marginally be better going left than right-handed.
“As I said in the week, I hope it will be what it is being billed as, but I hope it doesn’t ruin the Champion Chase.
“We didn’t want one smashing the other up to smithereens. Firstly, we all want to get round, be safe and recover.
“That they all come home safe and sound. Obviously, that was a battle and now we have to get them over that and get them ready for what will be round two, but it is actually for the championship.”
As in boxing, there are different eras and comparisons, fascinating as they are, cannot be drawn between Muhammad Ali and Tyson Fury. Each are very different.
Henderson has won the Queen Mother Champion Chase with the likes of Altior and Sprinter Sacre and he said: “The Sprinter Scares and Altiors were fantastic, but they might have had easier times.
“They were going off 2-1 on and everybody expected them to canter round and go and collect the prize and goodbye.
“Shishkin is tough. He is game. He is very honest. I just hope the race was what everybody wanted and it was good. It is good for the sport, good for the game and it was a proper race. The crowd has been fantastic.”
For De Boinville, the race meant plenty. Winner of the Gold Cup among plenty of other top prizes, the Clarence House Chase victory simply underlined his coolness on the big day.
“All credit to the horses in behind. After the last, he just seemed to motor away,” he said. “I think that is one of the best races I have ever been involved in.
“One could have ducked the other, but we’ve both come to the party and shown what we can do.
“It’s not so much the prizes you win, it’s how you go about winning them. The pace of the race today, there was no let-up. That’s why we want to be riding champions against other champions.”
And much of the credit must go to Mullins, Henderson, Kim Bailey and Dan Skelton, those responsible for the quartet who ran. They each played a part in building up the race to what it was entitled to be – an epic prize fight before the championship.
“It is our duty to do that. It is our responsibility,” said Henderson.
“I have had a lot of fun in racing. It has given me a lot of pleasure. We owe it to the people in racing and the people here and on the television to try to put a show on.
“That is why I get a little bit upset. The Tingle Creek issue still rankles, because I was really upset about it.
“We are doing our best for the horse by not running him. We are doing our best for racing and that is all you can do. We love it, we love the sport and we love the game and races like that is what it is all about.”
He added: “They are two proper two-mile chasers. The race has been built up and it lived up to it. It was like the Bustino-Grundy days, and this fellow (Shishkin) lives in a box only about for away from where Grundy lived.
“They are very special horses, but today was round one and Willie and I have to go and get these boys ready for March.
“We won today, which I am thrilled about, but they went down fighting tooth and nail, and looked like they had us on the ropes.
“But we got back and now we are going on to March and they will meet again and it will be another thriller.”
Henderson’s weary gait had been replaced. There was a now a spring in his step. The pressure had been released and Shishkin will go to Cheltenham as the undefeated champion in waiting.
Yet this was a split decision rather than a knockout blow. The rematch will be well worth the money.
Ding Ding, round two.