The 2022 Champion Chase, set for Wednesday March the 16th, is run over one mile, seven furlongs, and one hundred and ninety nine yards, and that yardage is a vital part of the puzzle when considering the two main contenders, Shishkin and Energumene. Put The Kettle On won last year, but that was a below par edition, while this years looks like it could be the race of the meeting.
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After winning three four runner novice chases prior to Cheltenham last year, Shishkin ran out an impressive winner of the Arkle, but there was only five runners, and his two main rivals went off far too quick for their ability, leaving him to come home twelve lengths in front of the outsider Eldorado Allen. There was no disputing he won well, but his reputation was based far more on the manner of victory, as well the times and sectionals he put up in his novice campaign, rather than the fact he beat quality horses, because he didn’t.
This season Shishkin beat Greaneteen by ten lengths at Kempton, powering away late having briefly looked to be outpaced when they quickened. That was another four runner race though, so wasn’t the most solid piece of form. Last time in the Clarence House at Ascot, he beat Energumene by a length, having shaped second best for much of the trip. In the aftermath of that race, I’ve read some pretty dubious analysis of it, with one author concluding that Shishkin shaped like a pure two miler, while Energumene looked like he wanted further, and another gem was a tweet expressing amazement that Shishkin touched 7/1 in running, as he never had him anything other than odds on. Now I might have lost this time, as I was actually surprised he didn’t go bigger, but I’d love to bet against that fellow in running on a regular basis.
Energumene set a really solid pace, probably a stride too quick in hindsight, and jumped and travelled beautifully. Shishkin jumped fine until pecking on landing at the sixth, and after that he always looked to be near his max trying to keep tabs on the leader, and was flat out on the last bend with Energumene still looking to be full of running. Despite getting a strong ride Shishkin didn’t close the gap at all until after the last, and it was only in the last hundred yards that he closed down the leader and got up late to win by a length. While you will read plenty of nonsense about Shishkin finding another gear, or that he picked up again to win, he did no such thing, he just slowed down less than Energumene late on, and it was stamina that won the day for him. While his ability to keep going is a great asset it seems bizarre anyone could look at the sectionals for that race, and think he shaped like a horse who would be better over a furlong shorter, and Energumene who while going a fraction quick for two miles and one furlong, probably went optimal pace for two miles, and looked very comfortable in doing it, could want further. Of course it’s possible for a horse that wants further to fade over shorter, because they’ve gone too quick for their ability, but given how he travelled into the straight I can’t for the life of me understand how you could reach that conclusion.
The Ascot race was run over a furlong further than the Champion Chase, and I’ve little doubt if the finish was at the furlong pole at Ascot Energumene could have run a couple of lengths quicker to that point, but I don’t think Shishkin could have. Also the idea that Cheltenham is a stiffer test due to ‘the hill’ was thoroughly debunked by Simon Rowlands in his ATR Blog, with google earth showing a rise of 9 meters for the last 3 furlongs at Ascot, compared to just 8 for the equivalent distance at Cheltenham. So if I think Energumene would have won if the race was over the same distance as the Champion Chase, and they both have similarly progressive profiles and potential, than I must think he’s the most likely winner? Not quite, as one of the reasons for me thinking Shishkin should have traded bigger in running is I expected his peck on landing at the sixth to have a high energy cost. He lost very little ground doing it, but it looked quite a jarring mistake to me, and they mostly take a toll later in the race, so maybe it did have a high cost and he still won, or maybe it didn’t. Another factor is the Cheltenham race is left handed versus the right handed Ascot, but while if you looked hard enough you could say Shishkin shifted left at some of the fences at Ascot, and Energumene shifted right at Leopardstown last year, it was fractional stuff, and I wouldn’t give it much weight at all.
The official handicapper raised Shishkin five pounds for that Ascot win and put Energumene up four pounds, but all that tells us is he was either wrong before the race, or after it, because changing his mind by a combined total of nine pounds based on two horses who went off 5/6 and 5/4, finishing clear of the 16/1 shot, in a four horse race, is a bit bonkers. Another factor to consider for Shishkin at Cheltenham is that while he is seven for seven over fences, he’s never faced more than four rivals, so he might find the Champion Chase a bit rougher through the race, while another slight negative for him is the only other time he got a proper end to end gallop over fences was at Cheltenham last year and he seemed to be feeling the effects of that at Aintree on his next start, when he made a meal of beating a vastly inferior rival. The gap between races then was only three and a half weeks though, were as it will be almost two months this time since that hard race at Ascot.
Before Ascot Energumene had a similar profile to Shishkin in that he had been beating up inferior rivals and his claim to be a real two mile star was based more on the clock than what he’s beat. There is no reason to think the Ascot race wasn’t a good reflection of their current ability, and on that basis he would have every chance of turning the tables, when track configuration, and ground considerations aside, going the same pace he did at Ascot would be perfect over a furlong shorter. The issue is while he was able to dictate at Ascot relatively unharried he might face some pace pressure from his stablemate Chacun Pour Soi at Cheltenham, as there is little point sending Chacun if only to give him the same negative ride he got last year, when he seemed to be reined back numerous times after making ground jumping. He took a strong hold for most of the trip and although hitting the front after the last he faded into third late on.
Chacun Pour Soi’s best from has been when he’s either set, or tracked a decent pace, and it was his ability to maintain it when others wilted that saw him put up some big time figures, where as at Cheltenham last year he was never allowed to get into any rhythm, as his jockey seemed to want to hold onto him and produce him late. He bounced back to his best at Punchestown afterwards, before flopping on his seasonal debut at Sandown this year, but he was found to have an injury after that, and the fact he’s been below par in both starts in the UK is more likely to be coincidence than anything else. If that’s the case then his best form is at least as good as the two at the head of the market, and he looked back in good form at Leopardstown the other day, although not doing anything you wouldn’t expect him to do. He is ten now though, and the other pair have more scope to do better still. The other concern would be tactics on the day, as if he’s ridden optimally that would mean tracking his stablemate, but allowing him to stride on, rather than constantly taking him back off him, and that could mean they overdo it too early.
Nube Negra is fourth favourite and while he was second, beaten just half a length in this last year, with the potential to do better still, he hasn’t really gone on from that, and that form won’t be good enough this year, unless all three ahead of him in the market have major off days. The same applies to last years winner Put The Kettle On, she has a great record at Cheltenham but she has never looked any better than she did that day, has got beaten in three starts since, and a repeat of her best is highly unlikely to be enough.
The current best with a run prices have Shishkin at 8/11, Energumene at 11/4, and Chacun at 6/1, and I wouldn’t put you off either of Willies two at those prices, as I think Shishkin looks much too short, but I’d rather wait and see the final field and ground before getting involved.