A year is an awfully long time in jumps racing it seems, as Nicky Henderson's Shishkin has found out.
Shishkin was odds-on favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2022 but, he didn't even get an entry for that Championship contest next time around and instead finished a disappointing second after starting favourite for the Ryanair Chase.
Having ended his season with a victory at as his stamina was teased out, could the ultimate pot of gold still be waiting for Shishkin in the Cotswolds next season?
|What||Cheltenham Gold Cup|
|Where||Cheltenham Festival, Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire|
|When||3.30, Friday 15th March 2024|
|How to watch||bet365 Sports Live Streaming, ITV Racing & Racing TV|
|Odds||Galopin Des Champs 2/1, Gerri Colombe 7/1, Shishkin 10/1, Bravemansgame 12/1, L'homme Presse 16/1, The Real Whacker 16/1, Fastorslow 20/1|
On the 22nd January 2022, Shishkin won the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, making it a perfect seven-from-seven over fences in doing so and winning his first Grade 1 chase in open company.
You'd have got fairly long odds that afternoon for that to be his first and last two-mile Grade 1 win at elite level, but that's now how it seems.
That contest was feted as being the 'race of the season' over jumps, despite only having four runners, two of whom were playing bit-parts.
Energumene was viewed as the big threat to Shishkin, with his bold front-running style expected to serve it up to Henderson's star.
And so it proved, Shishkin looking to be in some trouble midway after a stumble and continuing to look booked for second-best for most of the journey up Ascot's home straight, but, once the final fence was cleared, Nico de Boinville's partner accelerated on the outside and wore down Energumene in the final strides to ultimately win by a decisive and convincing length at the line.
He'd faced his toughest test and come through. It was full steam ahead to Cheltenham and a rematch everyone felt he would win.
It was one of the most eagerly anticipated races of recent Cheltenham Festivals but it proved anticlimactic, as Energumene won the Queen Mother Champion Chase at a canter after his two main rivals – Shishkin and Chacun Pour Soi – failed to complete.
They had both faltered by the fifth-last fence, leaving Energumene to dominate. Chacun Pour Soi was seemingly going well and a danger when Patrick Mullins was unseated, but Shishkin had been pulled up on the approach to the ninth by De Boinville.
Almost from flagfall, things didn't appear right with the favourite and De Boinville confessed he was worried immediately. The writing was on the wall and the rider accepted his fate.
Henderson laid some blame at the door of the pre-race downpour, but that looks fanciful especially given what has happened since.
That run last March was Shishkin's final outing of the season. Just one poor run wasn't going to see him written off and so, in early December, he went off 6/5fav to win the Grade 1 Tingle Creek at Sandown.
Oft-noted for hitting some kind of flat spot in his races, Shishkin was equally well known for responding in kind but, this time, there was no rally from him as Edwardstone stormed clear to win the Sandown prize with Greaneteen – a rival Shishkin had dismissed readily at Kempton 12 months previously – taking second spot, six-lengths clear of a tired Shishkin in third.
A year again proving such a long time in racing.
For Henderson, the Ascot Chase in February over 2m5f became the target, the Seven Barrows supremo effectively conceding Shishkin's days as a top two-miler were over as an eight-year-old with just nine chase starts behind him.
Referencing one of his former stable stars, Henderson recently suggested: "We've had two hiccups but we fought back with Sprinter Sacre and we'll fight back with him."
Fight back he did in a sparkling Ascot success that made him all the rage for the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham a month later.
There, however, his jumping was ragged and it allowed Envoi Allen to take the race away from him before Shishkin rallied defiantly up the Cheltenham hill to finish second. It was an effort that left as many as questions as answers.
Barely a month later and Henderson once more grasped the nettle by sending Shiskin out in the Aintree Bowl over three-miles-and-one-furlong.
It looked for all money as though Aintree specialist Ahoy Senor had his measure in the home straight as Shishkin had six-lengths to find after two out, but he rallied again and was well on top at the line.
That has opened up the prospect of staying chase glory next season and he's a 5/1 shot for King George glory at on Boxing Day, while he trades at 10/1 for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in 2024.