Nicky Henderson will bid for a seventh record Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase feeling that Shishkin has the edge over Energumene in their eagerly-awaited rematch
The pair served up a thrilling duel in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January, with Shishkin just holding the edge over the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene in one of the races of the season.
Shishkin is the odds-on favorite to maintain his unbeaten record over fences, while Mullins also fields Energumene’s stablemate Chacun Pour Soi, who finished third when a hot favorite for last year’s renewal, in the eight-runner line-up.
Henderson believes Shishkin, who won the Arkle Trophy Chase at last year’s Festival, has taken a pulsating first scrap in his stride and that left-handed racing at Cheltenham will play to his strengths.
“Ascot doesn’t seem to have left a mark on him, he seems in very good form,” said Henderson.
“The way he races means he doesn’t give himself a hard time. He’ll follow anybody. I’d expect the same sort of tactics at Cheltenham, unless Willie does something different, but I’m sure there’ll be a good pace on.
“You’d like to think the Cheltenham hill would be in our favor looking at the Ascot race – turning in he looked in trouble, but then his stamina kicked in. They’d gone a good gallop and that is his strength.
“You’d be pretty sure he’d get two and a half miles but there’s no rush, the Champion Chase is the Champion Chase and that is the one we want.
“Willie did say he didn’t know how he was going to turn the tables, but I also think he’s looking forward to having another crack. I think the rematch is the interesting part of the race.
“There was only a length between them so anything could happen. This will be two months later and going the other way around which possibly helps us, but there’s not much in it – a length is not a lot.
“Energumene did not make the Arkle last year, you can’t hold that against him, and we’ve come up the hill a couple of times before. It didn’t look like Chacun Pour Soi did last year, but Willie will know what he’s doing. “
Chacun Por Soi was beaten a length and a half by Put The Kettle On and Nube Negra when third last year. Both horses reoppose in a strong renewal of the two-mile showpiece.
“It’s going to be a hell of a race,” Mullins said. “You’ve got Chacun Pour Soi, Energumene and Shishkin and a few others.
“I think Chacun Pour Soi has it in him. He’s the one I’d love to see winning in Cheltenham.
“I think the world of Chacun Pour Soi and a lot of people are saying that he can’t face the hill at Cheltenham, but he’s a horse I’d love to see get a fair chance over there – which I don’t think he’s had yet.
“Maybe he’s a horse that runs better fresh, especially when you take the traveling into account. People are saying we should fly him, but I don’t think that’s the solution as it brings a whole new thing into it. I think he ‘ ll be fine going over the way we do – we used to fly and there wasn’t much in it, plus the cost was high.
“When we went to Cheltenham in the early days, all the horses flew. Since ferries and roads have improved, we can get to Cheltenham about two or three hours longer than we would when we fly, plus there’s so much waiting around when you do There’s a plus and minus to everything – we need our own plane and runway! “
Chacun Pour Soi traveled strongly 12 months ago when held up behind the leaders and was shaken up to lead at the last, but found little on the run-in.
“At the time I thought we should have made more use of Chacun Pour Soi pace-wise last year, but this year is a different race,” added the Closutton trainer.
“Him and Energumene are completely different horses. Energumene is a young horse coming into this and Chacun has done a lot of stuff, so we give him the respect he’s due, I think.
“Energumene ran a terrific race in a brilliant day to be involved in at Ascot and we look forward to the rematch.
“We know he’s not far away from wherever Shishkin is but, as I said on the day, it’s going to be hard to turn that form around.
“Shishkin made two mistakes and we can probably change things a little bit and it’s going to be very tough to win, but we’ll see.
“I never worry or think about ground when I go to Cheltenham. I think possibly nicer ground would suit Chacun more and the way he faded at Sandown (in the Tingle Creek) might suggest that better ground may suit. I think Energumene will go on any ground. “
Put The Kettle On has not won in three starts since landing the race last year but trainer Henry de Bromhead feels that she will be a different proposition in defense of her crown.
“I couldn’t tell you why Cheltenham seems to bring out the best in her, but she seems to love it over there,” he said. “Her form is really good and she really comes into herself when she’s there.
“She’s often underestimated when she goes there and she’s been a pretty good price when winning the Arkle and the Champion Chase. She loves it around there and let’s see. She seems to be really coming to herself now.”
De Bromhead is also represented by Envoi Allen, who was odds-on to win last season’s Marsh Novices’ Chase, but fell at the fourth. He started the season with a Grade Two success over an extended two miles and three furlongs and took a second Grade One over fences when scoring in a three-runner affair at Leopardstown over Christmas.
De Bromhead added: “He has the pace for the race. Whether he has the experience of jumping at that speed is another thing. They went quickly enough at Leopardstown, so I would think he will.”
The 2020 scorer Politologue and Newbury’s Game Spirit Chase winner Funambule Sivola add depth to a star-studded line-up, in which Dan Skelton hopes Nube Negra can go one better than when beaten half a length last year.
Skelton said: “We’ve got a very fast horse who handles the track. We’ve got to have him fresh and he is that.
“In a two-mile race you jump off and go. Tactically you’ve got to be aware and if any of the top contenders makes a mistake, it’s going to tell on them.
“We know it’s going to be hard, but anyone can see why we’re positive about him.
“I hope we go there and win it on merit and I don’t think it’s a million to one that we could.”