SUNDAY TIMES, 23 January 2022
Dip the pen in purple, unleash the superlatives, banish the self-inflicted nonsense that has brought the game disgrace. For there has never been a better horse race than when Shishkin finally outgunned Energumene after the last fence at Ascot.
As the race developed there were times when it looked as if Shishkin would be added to their number, for Paul Townend had Energumene rolling along in front with a brilliant rhythm to his gallop and huge flair to his jumping. At the sixth fence, the first open ditch, the effort of matching Energumene’s leap saw Shishkin pitch perilously on landing. Climbing back up the hill Townsend was still motionless in the blue silks of owner Tony Bloom while Nico De Boinville in the yellow and black check Donnelly colours was already niggling at Shishkin to keep tabs on his rival.
The Clarence House Chase duel between these two unbeaten young chasers had you drooling in anticipation and then raising the roof in celebration. Shishkin, the latest star from Nicky Henderson’s English champion stable, was six from six over fences and already twice a winner at the Cheltenham Festival. Energumene, the pride of Ireland, was five from five under the gifted guidance of trainer Willie Mullins and a freewheeling horse whose high cruising speed has put all his opponents in trouble.
Energumene rounded the turn to the last two fences still under full sail while De Boinville was slapping Shishkin down the shoulder in near desperation. A great jump at the second last put the Irish horse two lengths clear as they came towards us and up and over the final fence he was still in the winning rhythm even if not yet putting the other away.
But Shishkin is tough and the last hundred yards of the Ascot finish in soft ground is a pitiless place. He had not jumped the last quite as well as Energumene but as De Boinville gathered the horse beneath him you could see that Shishkin was going to take this to the limit .
Energumene was still ahead but his stride was starting to falter and for Paul Townend the winning post seemed to be retreating. A huge roar came from the stands as Shishkin finally took him and stuck his neck out for a famous victory. It was just a length, and so there is everything to play for when the pair have their rematch in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
The atmosphere as the two horses passed the post was as extraordinary as I have ever sensed in any stadium and that includes Olympics, Cup Finals, Wimbledon and the Five Nations. As people rushed to the rails to greet the heroes it was as if thousands and thousands of bees were in “did you see that” conversation and as De Boinville rode back in triumph, as he has on the likes of Altior and Sprinter Sacre, he would say “that’s the best reception I have ever had in my life.”
What a treat it was for this writer who rode in Ascot’s first steeplechase back in April 1965 and had seen Arkle beat Mill House at Cheltenham the year before. Best of all, this was not the first time in the last week that the sport had lifted the spirit heavenwards. For at Plumpton on Wednesday the second race was won by a hurdler called Mark Of Gold owned by friends of Stevie Fisher, a farrier who had a stroke six years ago leaving him incapable of movement or communication beyond blinking with his left eyelid on to a computer screen.
But his spirit remains indomitable as I discovered editing his book ‘Blinkin ‘Ell, 33,000 words delivered blink by blink and letter by letter. Stevie was there to see his winner on Wednesday and afterwards emailed to say; “when racing goes to plan it really can be amazing.” Shishkin and Energumene were a wonderful “Amen” to that.