Ascot is a spectacular location, known for its glamor in mid-June when it hosts the royal reunion, for the King George in July and, lately, in October for British Champions Day.
This afternoon he will host a huge national hunt showdown, which he has done in the past, but this time we are well into the season, and both horses should be capable of what lies ahead.
The last big showdown saw Cyrname beat Altior in November 2019, and while Cyrname triumphed, the effort put in by both horses in this season opening fight left its mark on them. Cyrname ran twice more this season with no joy, while Altior only made the track once more, 77 days after losing at Ascot, and won at Newbury but then missed the spring showdowns .
In the SBK Clarence House Chase this afternoon, Altior heir Shishkin will face Energumene for the first time in their short career. It should be the second round. Energumene missed the first round of last March’s Arkle Novice Chase at Cheltenham, and when Shishkin took the road to Aintree, a clash at Punchestown never looked likely.
The way I saw it last May was it would be Cheltenham in March before they met as it would have taken a crystal ball to see how the season would progress for the top three in that two mile split . Willie Mullins was likely to split his two, Everyone For Self and Energumene, for as long as possible. This was evident given the programs available in this division on both sides of the Irish Sea in similar timeframes.
Let one go to Cork for an easy start in the Grade Two Hilly Way, then Leopardstown at Christmas and the Dublin Racing Festival in February, while the other could go to Tingle Creek in Sandown and Clarence House in Ascot , a la Un De Sceaux. Then they would face each other at Cheltenham.
So Energumene went to Cork but ended up having a tough run. The day before, Everyone went to Sandown and didn’t run any races in the Tingle Creek. An about-face developed over Christmas, only for Everyone For Self to miss that race when he came out lame in the morning – far too late to make a replacement for Energumene.
Meanwhile, at Lambourn, Shishkin hadn’t impressed Nicky Henderson or his team at Seven Barrows, so he missed Tingle Creek and didn’t reappear on the Kempton track until Christmas.
As he blitzed the field at the Desert Orchid, Everyone hobbled around his box, while Energumene kicked down the door as Envoi Allen picked up the Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase in Leopardstown.
The best-laid plans sometimes backfire, but even though Nicky Henderson left Kempton on December 27, surely Newbury’s game spirit must have been spinning in his mind for Shishkin.
Willie Mullins had already got his hands on the table for Energumene when he announced his intention to go to Ascot before Christmas. And Nicky Henderson took on today’s challenge.
It’s an eye-catching race with the slightest passing interest in horse racing watching, and it could or should be the first leg of a trilogy. Maybe it’s because they’ll have to finish tight for the losers to want a second down against the winner. It should be because if they return to Cheltenham the option to part ways for Sandown or Punchestown at the end of April should not exist.
The adaptability of both coaches meant they changed their plans to be where they are this afternoon. Both have long realized the importance of spring in national hunt races, and both train their horses to improve since their first race, so that they are fit enough to endure tough races by the following. They are the two most successful managers at the Cheltenham Festival, a fixture they are set to dominate again in March, and both love to win. One will stand at Ascot this afternoon and congratulate the loser, while the other will fittingly congratulate the winner.
But don’t let that confuse you into thinking that both are just good winners and good losers. Either could have avoided this clash until March 16. Both had alternative options that would have been easier, so both think they have the better horse and are ready to roll the dice.
Do they need to know at this point if this is the case? Not really, because the day would still come, but winning today will give the Champion Chase an advantage.
It will force the loser to try something new, tactically, for the rematch or if the loss is adamant, it may even push the loser into a different contest. Both coaches play a calculated hand to be on their feet before the outside world watches for four days in March.
The training effects will not be lost on Paul Townend or Nico De Bonville and today it is this pressure cooker situation that every sportsman, not just a jockey, wants. Expect Paul to move on and Nico to stick to him like a magnet on his back.
David Bass, on last year’s winner First Flow, will also play his part. He likes to run up front, but if Shishkin and Energumene are what we’re all hoping for, they should let him down as they move away from last resort and the ante climbs at a rate only stars can maintain .
Two miles, one stadia and 67 yards, 13 fences, hitting 35 mph as they descend towards Swinley Bottom between fences five and seven.
A 100-yard lull as they turn to climb back up to fence eight before meeting the long home bend of fences 11-12.
The perfect mix of speed, stamina and jumps awaits. Be sure to watch at 3:35 p.m. as the race can’t offer you anything more exciting.