26th December 2023
This could be a Boxing Day for the record books. We have another step on Constitution Hill’s gallop to greatness, a new star from across the channel with the somewhat unnecessary name of Il Est Francais, and a potential first ever winner of the King George VI Chase who wouldn’t even start last time.
Let’s take him first. Shishkin is a magnificent thoroughbred. When he won the Arkle Chase at Cheltenham three years ago he looked the natural heir to his stable’s Sprinter Sacre and Altior. He even bettered things when his defeat of Irish star Energumene was one of the greatest duels Ascot will ever see.
But then he completely blew out at Cheltenham in that March of 2022, and while he returned to his best at Ascot and Aintree this spring, he ran a peculiarly reluctant race before finishing well at Cheltenham in between. But what was a punter’s slight question mark before his re-appearance at Ascot last month became a full red health warning after he firmly declined to take any part in the proceedings.
Nicky Henderson was reduced to saying, “he’s never done this before”, a tag in the horse business all too often used for the fatal flaw only discovered after purchase. But as a champion trainer currently operating at a 27% strike rate, Henderson has little interest in deceiving punters.
No one but Shishkin can be sure what is going to happen tbut James Daly, Henderson’s assistant and the horse’s regular rider of a morning, will be at the start and the wooly cheek pieces applied last time will be left off. “He’s a funny horse but he doesn’t owe us anything ,” said Nico De Boinville on Saturday, with the sang froid of a man who has to ride Constitution Hill 35 minutes before the King George VI and the much hyped hurdles debutant Gentleman’s Relish half an hour after.
The Kempton topography where the three mile King George VI start is close to the stables may accentuate Shishkin’s problem ,but if the horse is in the right mood the race might well evolve to his advantage. Four of his five rivals go from the front and the fifth, Bravemansgame, likes to stay close to the lead as he did when winning this last year.
Frodon and Bryony Frost were 20-1 front-running heroes in 2020 and can still set a merry gallop even if those glory days look over. The Real Whacker and Sam Twiston Davies have “devil take the hindmost” deep in their ether. Hewick won both the Galway Plate and the American Grand National at the head of things and was in front down the hill before crashing out in the Gold Cup.
Which leaves us Allaho, an awesome dual winner of the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival whom not just the Willie Mullins disciples have backed down to 13/8 favourite. But Allaho’s successful reappearance in November was his first race in 17 months so he has had his soundness issuea and, guess what, he is a front runner.
At full tilt Allaho is a terrific sight, a great big horse bowling in and over his fences as if they were dandy brushes. But his huge stride might not be suited by the sharpness of the Kempton track on what will be the fastest ground he has ever raced on. Getting into his thundering, rival-destructing rhythm will be difficult with the other front runners snapping at his heels.
In 1987 Desert Orchid’s sequence of King George victories was interrupted by an early race for the lead which saw him Cybrandian and Beau Ranger running the first four furlongs in under 50 seconds and the French runner Nupsala picking up the bits. Paul Townend is unlikely to fall for that on Allaho, but if his rhythm is broken and Bravemansgame has not improved from his two underwhelming shows this season, the gate could be open for an on- song Shishkin. If you have an in-running account, wait until you have seen him cross three fences and then go in like the brave.
Last year Marcus Armytage and I stood at the last flight and shook our heads in wonder as Constitution Hill spring heeled over. After that he was equally astonishing at Cheltenham and only marginally less so at Aintree to take his unbeaten tally to seven. There is already talk of him being the greatest ever but Kempton is a place where Desert Orchid won 4 King Georges and Kauto Star five and our new hero has to win 27 more times and run in 63 more races to match Dessie’s journey. Five Champion Hurdles and big pots in France and Ireland may be needed to reach legend status, least of all GOAT.
Even earlier there will be excitement in seeing if the French star Il Est Francais can transfer his brilliance from Auteuil to Kempton. This time last year he was acclaimed as the best 4yo hurdler in France and he has been scintillating in two chases this season. But with Paul Nicholls impressive Newbury winner Hermes Allen and Lucinda Russell’s highly promising Giovinco down from Scotland it should be no cake walk.
If Il Est Francais does win the commentator will be forced into one of the most irritating statements of the obvious since Clement Freud named an animal with that original intent. He called it – “A French Horse.”