Thursday March 17 2022, 12.01am, The Times
The Energumene-Shishkin Champion Chase showdown had been hailed as the greatest rematch since Ali–Frazier but was reduced to the soggiest of squibs when the heavens opened as Shishkin did the equivalent of sitting on his stool before the halfway mark in capitulating to the rain-soaked conditions.
Shishkin is a magnificent athlete with ten straight wins on his roster, and his epic defeat of Energumene at Ascot in January was one of the most thrilling races most of us had seen. He has also won on soft turf, but the combination of the suddenly deepened going and a rocketing early pace soon had him struggling yesterday. Even after the first fence Nico de Boinville’s wrists were moving urgently on the reins and by the time Shishkin put in another sluggish jump at the third, the alarm bells were ringing.
He has had mid-race flat spots in the past but this was an ever-growing puddle. De Boinville pulled him wide at the downhill fence, the fourth, only to be repaid with another blunder. He was last at the water jump and clearly labouring. After a moderate effort at the ditch De Boinville very sensibly called proceedings to a halt.
The jockey cut an abject, mud-bespattered figure as he rode back on an ears-pricked, apparently healthy Shishkin and had to endure the sort of drunken ironic cheers that served to remind us that it is not just football crowds who can resort to bad behaviour. As De Boinville dismounted you could hear him say: “He absolutely hated the ground,” and it looked as though the blame game was possibly being entered after the course’s decision to water overnight had been compounded by an unpredicted downpour from mid-morning.
However, De Boinville is adept at avoiding public controversy and it was left to Nicky Henderson, Shishkin’s trainer, to bring 44 years of perspective to the disappointment that had followed his triumphs of only yesterday. “He seems fine,” he said of Shishkin. “Nico’s pulled him up and said he was absolutely fine. You could nearly tell going to the first fence that he wasn’t where he wanted to be and I knew why — he couldn’t get out of [the ground]. We’re in very extreme ground.”
“Yes, he’s won in soft ground but you’re going around in heavy ground and that’s not his scene. I walked around here on Sunday and it was soft and you need very, very little [rain] to change it. Well, we’ve not had very, very little we’ve had very, very much.”
Reacting to complaints that John Pullin, the new clerk of the course, should not have watered overnight, Henderson added: “Yes, he put some water on because the boys felt last night coming down the hill [it was getting quick], which is a dangerous place to be getting quick. If they’re saying that, you have to act accordingly. The forecast didn’t predict what we’ve had. I’m not shouting and screaming. They’ve done their best, it is what it is. There’s no point crying about it.”
With any luck Shishkin will resume winning ways on a better surface but it is not uncharitable to think that the highest-rated chaser in the islands should have put up a slightly better show.
While the ground was clearly getting squelchingly testing, it is worth noting that Energumene’s winning time of 4min 6.2sec was actually quicker than the Henderson-trained Altior’s 4min 7.6sec on officially soft ground in the 2018 Champion Chase.
The worst conditions I have seen at Cheltenham were in December 1965 when the finish looked as though the horses were galloping through a moving fountain. Despite this, Flyingbolt carried 12st 6lb and trounced a competitive field by 15 lengths. The following March, Flyingbolt won the Champion Chase in a canter and was an unlucky second in the Champion Hurdle a day later. Shishkin is a terrific horse but he is no Flyingbolt.
With Shishkin out at halfway there were a few seconds of believing that Energumene’s stablemate Chacun Pour Soi could deliver the sort of championship performances he has produced to acclaim in Ireland. Only that morning Paul Townend, the jockey, had been talking of how difficult it had been to choose Energumene in preference to Chacun Pour Soi, and watching Patrick Mullins get such a tune out of him it looked as though he had made the wrong decision.
But it was not to last. At the very next fence Mullins, the most successful amateur in the history of the game, had one of racing’s moments of nightmare. A sudden pitch on landing jerked the reins, took the rider most unhappily overboard and the rest would prove a formality.
After trying to break Shishkin from the front at Ascot, the Energumene camp had decided to play the stalker this time only to find that now they had nothing to stalk. “Over the first two I could see Nico trying to be a bit closer but watching his body language it was soon clear he wasn’t going on and I had to ride my own race after that,” Townend said.
The fizzling out of the rematch should not take away from how powerful a sight Energumene is in action. His long, raking stride and great lengthy leaps kept him always in control. Rachael Blackmore and Envoi Allen threatened briefly but it was left to Funumbule Sivola to come in a respectful eight-length second. Envoi Allen was a further three lengths away in third.
“He is top class,” Townend said, before adding generously of his opponent’s disappointment: “I thought to be involved in the race at Ascot was exceptional, bar the result on our behalf, but they are two proper horses and they will meet again. For now, though, it’s magic.”