Cheltenham Countdown: Stellar Shishkin the Christmas highlight

Nicky Henderson's Shishkin
Shishkin: the real deal

David Cleary offers a first helping of Christmas treats, including Shishkin and Chacun Pour Soi, as well as the eclipse of two Henderson hotpots...

"By remarkable coincidence, Sire du Berlais and The Storyteller had both finished sixth in the previous two runnings of Leopardstown's Pertemps qualifier...This year's sixth-home..., Morosini, certainly bears a lot of comparison with those mentioned. He's unexposed at three miles and shaped a fair bit better than his position indicates, doing his best work late on after finding traffic problems. Bad stats, widely available, are bad stats, but concentrate on the visuals - Morosini is very much one for the Pertemps Final shortlist."

In reviewing the bumper Christmas programme, there are quite a few places where this column could start, but in terms of merit and potential there is only one place it should start, and that is with Shishkin.

His success in the Wayward Lad at Kempton on Sunday heralded the arrival of a superstar chaser, one to be talked about alongside the best of Nicky Henderson's previous winners of this race, Sprinter Sacre, Altior and Simonsig. To reach the level he did on just his second start over fences and against his fellow novices was a fine achievement, and the visual impression he created was backed up by analysis of the time and sectionals.

Shishkin faced just three rivals, though there was a case to be made for each of them and this was a tough assignment after an exercise round here on his chasing bow.

In Gumball he had a smart opponent who would ensure a true gallop, the pace set very similar to three out to that in the Desert Orchid for established two-milers later on the card. From that point, Shishkin raised his game and, although Tamaroc du Matin fleetingly threatened to challenge at the second-last, Shishkin stormed clear, his sectional from the third-last to the line clearly superior to Nube Negra's in winning the Desert Orchid.

Shishkin understandably is a short price for the Arkle and would be one of the bankers of the Festival, though his trainer, in a lengthy interview (mostly about Altior) later in the afternoon, raised the tantalising option of running in the Champion Chase instead. He had already pencilled in the Game Spirit, an open Grade 2, on Betfair day at Newbury for Shishkin and with races at Cheltenham to find for Allart, Fusil Raffles and Chantry House, the option of switching Shishkin may well be in the back of the trainer's mind.

Another hint in that direction - and regular readers will understand that the Devil will cite scripture for his purpose - was Henderson's suggestion that Shishkin would definitely have won the Desert Orchid, which would be backed up by the times and the visual impression, good as Nube Negra was. It would be very unlike the trainer to throw Shishkin a tougher assignment than he needs to, but the ability is definitely there should he choose to do so.

Nube Negra enters Champion Chase picture as Altior flops

Perhaps had all gone well with Altior, against Nube Negra, then nothing would have been said in that regard, and certainly Altior's performance, beaten for just the second time over jumps, takes some explaining. He shouldn't really have laboured from an early stage in the way that he did with the pace set by Duc des Genievres and though he stuck to his task willingly from three out, Altior near his best would have made more of a fight of it with the winner.

Altior is rising 11, so the possibility that he isn't the horse he was, after a light campaign last season, has to be considered. With a lesser horse, it would be worth trying him again over further or perhaps even in headgear, but that might be considered an ignominy in his case. The most hopeful explanation, one floated by connections the next day, was that something wasn't quite right. Altior has been such a star over so many seasons that it would be a shame to see him bow out on a low note.

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Nube Negra, unconsidered beforehand and perhaps not getting the attention he deserved afterwards, was evidently much improved, on just his fifth start over fences, and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, so far as the Champion Chase is concerned, though he would need to improve quite a bit further. Duc des Genievres was disappointing in the way he dropped out, particularly as he'd looked to take quite a step forward in the Shloer at Cheltenham on his return.

Chacun Pour Soi consolidates Cheltenham claims

Put The Kettle On, who'd won the Shloer, had been beaten earlier in the afternoon at Leopardstown, though she ran creditably in taking third behind Chacun Pour Soi in the Paddy Power-sponsored Grade 1 event. Put The Kettle On stuck willingly to her task, but was beaten fair and square, albeit in a slightly unsatisfactory race.

It may be that connections will have a rethink with regard to her Cheltenham target, the option of the inaugural Mares Chase over an extra half mile, a more winnable target, for all that it is a Grade 2.

Chacun Pour Soi, with a run under his belt this time, made amends for his defeat in this race 12 months previously. The crucial point of the race came over the last two fences before the straight, super-slick jumps after going to the front, giving Chacun Pour Soi a decisive advantage. Had the fence in the straight also been jumped - omitted for low sun - then he might have won by even further. With questions over Altior and Defi du Seuil, Chacun Pour Soi is understandably a short price for the Champion Chase.


Epatante holds firm in Champion market despite Christmas reverse

While the favourites for the Arkle and Champion Chase consolidated their position with impressive victories, the biggest upset of the week came when the favourite for the Champion Hurdle, Epatante, was turned over at short odds in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. However, the outcome of the Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown three days later did nothing to dent her position at the head of the market and she remains by some way the most plausible winner come March.

Epatante was another that had Nicky Henderson scratching his head, though again the suggestion developed that she just wasn't herself. Her jumping certainly wasn't so razor sharp as usual, a mistake three out the first sign that there was an upset afoot.

That it was Silver Streak that beat her might initially lead to the result being just written off, given how established that one's merits are. However, there are grounds for thinking Silver Streak was better than ever. He was given a perfectly judged ride from the front, under a change of tactics from Adam Wedge, and his own jumping was an asset.

Whether Silver Streak can employ the same tactics to even better effect in the Champion Hurdle is doubtful, particularly as he may well not get his own way in front. His record in the Champion Hurdle suggests he has place prospects, but if Epatante is back to her best then probably not more than that.

Sharjah and Concertista both shine as Mullins' bonanza continued

The same also applies to Sharjah, who landed the Festival Hurdle for the third year in succession. He won well and rounded off a superb week for his trainer Willie Mullins, but it's doubtful he had to show himself any better than he has previously. Sharjah's style of racing means he'd be there to pick up the pieces late on in the Champion Hurdle. That was good enough for second, comfortably held, to Epatante last season, and a similar outcome might well be achievable this season too.

His more highly-touted opponents didn't do their claims any favours. The favourite Saint Roi seemed beaten fair and square, his finishing effort pretty tame after he'd looked poised to mount a strong challenge going to the last. Abacadabras clearly didn't run his race, beaten turning in, and was later reported to have scoped dirty after the race.

Aspire Tower, the fortunate Triumph winner, was a creditable second, though his jumping isn't good enough for the Champion Hurdle on this showing.

Concertista, who landed a Grade 3 over two and a half miles, may yet emerge as a Champion Hurdle wildcard, though the Mares Hurdle looks the more obvious route.

She gained a third win in a row against her own sex, beating Minella Melody convincingly, just as she had last time out, this race placing more emphasis on stamina than the one then. Concertista is hard to rate that highly because of the opposition she's facing, but she looks capable of quite a bit of improvement when the chance comes. The Irish Champion would certainly be an interesting option.

Beware: a bad stat lurks below

The most significant event so far as the Stayers' Hurdle was concerned, was Leopardstown's three-mile Christmas Hurdle. Rather like its Kempton namesake, the outcome turned on a tactical masterclass, with Flooring Porter's rider Jonathan Moore taking the initiative at the start and keeping enough up his sleeve to see off all challengers.

Flooring Porter has improved rapidly this winter, but was seen to maximum advantage and will need to progress again to trouble the current leaders in the division.

The Storyteller, back over hurdles, did well to take second, coming from well off the pace, and has plenty of options, perhaps including the Grand National. Sire du Berlais was a respectable third and his Cheltenham record means he remains a player so far as the Stayers' is concerned.

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By remarkable coincidence, Sire du Berlais and The Storyteller had both finished sixth in the previous two runnings of Leopardstown's Pertemps qualifier. Sire du Berlais went on to win at Cheltenham the following March, while The Storyteller was runner-up last time round.

Three others to fill that position at Leopardstown since 2011 have gone on to run at the Festival, Jetson taking third in the Final, Rathpatrick leading over the last before fading to a close-up sixth and Toner d'Oudaries finishing second in the Martin Pipe. Presenting Percy was half a length too good for sixth when he ran in the race before his Pertemps Final triumph.

This year's sixth-home in the Pertemps qualifier, Morosini, certainly bears a lot of comparison with those mentioned. He's unexposed at three miles and shaped a fair bit better than his position indicates, doing his best work late on after finding traffic problems. Bad stats, widely available, are bad stats, but concentrate on the visuals - Morosini is very much one for the Pertemps Final shortlist.

That will do for now, but there will be plenty more on the Christmas and New Year racing to come on Monday.

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