Cheltenham Festival 2023 focus | Can Shishkin rediscover his mojo?

The real Shishkin has not been spotted in his last two racetrack appearances but could Saturday’s Betfair Ascot Chase be the launch pad for Ryanair Chase’s glory?

Two-mile trip really to blame for the dent?

“Shishkin raced like he wanted to get further to my eye,” Nicky Henderson said at a press briefing at his farm in Seven Barrows this week. “I hope I’m right, otherwise I’ll be making a lot more supplements!”

In typically ebullient fashion, Henderson sums up the Shishkin problem. And it doesn’t sound like he’s 100 percent convinced that it only took Shishkin one trip all along.

How could he be? This is a horse that has won eight straight races over distances of around two miles, including a Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, a Sporting Life Arkle, a Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase, a Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase and an SBK Clarence House Chase.

True, in the Supreme he needed every inch of the journey. But in his inexperienced chases, he looked under the cruise control for over two miles, and it was the same story when he smashed up Greaneteen in Kempton on his first attempt in open company.

Then came Clarence House and the fight with Energumene. A race for the ages and one he drew from the fire no less than future Champion Chaser.

But maybe it shaped him. It certainly looked more than just the very soft ground that looked to him at Cheltenham, where he was uncomfortable from the moment he was ridden off the first fence.

Nico de Boinville claimed he noticed the flashing warning signs before the start and pulled him up after the eighth.

Cue a major TÜV A rare bone disease was diagnosed. Henderson described it as a “strange problem, but a fixable one,” but with Celebration Chase out of the equation, race fans wondered when they would next see Shishkin again.

Sprinter blueprint gives Shishkin hope

Her answer came at Tingle Creek at Sandown Park nine months later and he was an awkward 15-length third behind Edwardstone. Henderson said his jumping kept him in it, but he messed up the pond fence. That was more encouraging than the Champion Chase, but it wasn’t vintage shishkin.

A few weeks later he was making noise at work. A scope sight revealed an inverted palate and a second wind operation was deemed necessary. The same applies to entries into the Ryanair Chase and the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup – but not the Champion Chase.

bones and respiration. These physical issues could easily be to blame instead of the trip. Maybe he’s just not the horse he was?

It’s time to find out. If he attempts 2m5f at the Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase on Saturday, we’ll get a good idea of ​​what Shishkin Henderson model is on his hands heading into spring.

The nine-year-old has been more (un)reliable Robin than the purring Ferrari of yore on his last few runs, but Henderson has been there and has done it before with a few successful engine tweaks on a star horse and no more than when he rediscovered the spark of sprinter Sacre.

Sprinter Sacre’s open company form numbers were 1-1-1-1-1-P-2-P-2-1-1-1-1, with that rash in the middle coming after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and it it took Henderson two years to get his brilliant two-mile chaser back into the winning groove.

The patience and skill that went into reviving sprinter Sacre’s career after such a serious physical ailment was one of the triumphs of Henderson’s four decades as a coach, and it gives hope more than anything that Shishkin will bounce back to peak form can.

Ascot test and Ryanair

In the minds of bookmakers and bettors at the time of writing he is not the most likely winner of this Saturday’s Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase with Fakir D’Oudairies being the 5/4 favorite against 5/2 Shishkin.

Those last two underperforming runs, the only times he’s been seen in the last 11 months, are rightly the talk of the town.

But he could fight back. And Fakir D’Oudairies is the perfect horse for Henderson to test his newly optimized shishkin. After 77 days off, after a new trip, after wind surgery, also from a tongue tie, on possibly spring-like ground, Shishkin is up against a brilliantly consistent horse, but not a consistently brilliant one.

Joseph O’Brien’s eight-year-old has won four Grade 1s and registered a timeform-adjusted rating of 177 four times, his best number.

For comparison, Shishkin didn’t deliver a number in the Champion Chase and 167+ in Tingle Creek. But at his best he ran 181+ twice and 190 at Ascot against Energumene. At his best Fakir D’Oudairies can’t match him but you can almost set your watch on last year’s winner of this race so he’s a super Barometer.

If the tweaks work and Shishkin travels with his old panache, while proving himself at the intermediate distance and giving Fakir D’Oudairies a honest hit, the general 4/1 quotes for Ryanair Chase will be long gone. In a year without Allaho he will be the clear favourite. A top of his game Shishkin looks like the one horse that could blow this race apart.

So maybe Henderson’s eye is right. Maybe he needed a trip all the time. After all, he won a point-to-point and is a half brother to a 3m1f Hunter Chase winner.

And he was also one of two sons by Sholokhov to take the 2021 Cheltenham Festival by storm. They had the world of racing under control at the time. The other, Bob Olinger, looks a shadow of his former self. We don’t have enough evidence to say the same about Shishkin yet, but this weekend is an absolutely massive one for him.

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