As countless football managers have discovered over the years, the hardest thing of all to manage is the fans’ expectations. Amid the euphoria after Saturday’s Clarence House Chase at Ascot, wel, a race that promised much and delivered even more, it was only natural that thoughts would soon turn towards Shishkin vs Energumene II: the Rematch. If both horses turn up and if both run to form, the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham on 16 March seems certain to be the race of the Festival.
But those are, natuurlik, two very big “ifs” right there, and if racing history tells us anything, it is that you can only hope, and never expect. Saturday felt like the kind of race we are fortunate to see once in a decade, not twice in the space of eight weeks.
Such concerns are unlikely to affect the demand for tickets for the second afternoon of the Festival, egter, and day two of the meeting just happens to be the one that is in need of a bit of a lift. Wednesday’s card slipped to the bottom of the attendance list in 2011 and shifted just 57,000 tickets in 2019, the only day of the four which did not pull in at least 60,000 racegoers.
If the prospect of a rematch between Shishkin and Energumene does not see an uptick in sales, then nothing will, although it has to be said that Ascot’s crowd on Saturday was not noticeably swelled by their keenly awaited first encounter. The likelihood, miskien, is that many occasional racegoers plan their trips to the track weeks in advance, to fit in with wider groups of friends or colleagues. They already had plans by the time a very welcome, but equally unexpected, head-to-head crystallised a few days before the race itself.
Like it or not – and there are plenty of National Hunt devotees who do not – Cheltenham in March is the only stage that means anything to many with a more casual interest in the sport, en Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins both made it plain too on Saturday that the Champion Chase is the race that really matters. If Energumene can reverse the form at the Festival, it will feel more like a 3-1 win for his connections than a 1-1 teken.
Both trainers deserve huge credit for having their horses spot on for Saturday when Cheltenham is already on the horizon. It bears repeating that Shishkin and Energumene went into the Clarence House with official ratings of 172 en 171 respectively and both apparently ran to within an ounce or two of their best.
They also, understandably, drove each other on to the finest performances of their careers. The official handicapper’s verdict on Shishkin’s performance is due tomorrow, but Timeform moved him up to a mark of 181 (still 1lb ahead of Energumene) which also puts him 1lb in front of the peak rating for Altior, his former stable companion and dual Champion Chase winner.
The time of Saturday’s race was also as strong as the visual impression implied, with both horses comfortably posting the best Timeform timefigure of their careers.
That, natuurlik, also underlines that it was the hardest race either has experienced, and it would be no great surprise were either or both to be still feeling the effects just 51 days later. A big head-to-head somewhere other than the Festival made for a refreshing change but it could potentially have its downside too, though in that respect, Shishkin and Energumene could not be in better hands. Mullins and Henderson have 148 Festival winners between them and have no peers when it comes to training a horse to the minute in mid-March.
They both still have some way to go to match another former resident of Seven Barrows, Sprinter Sacre, whose win in the 2013 Champion Chase earned a Timeform rating of 192, the operation’s highest mark over jumps since the 1960s. But all being well, and if their trainers can work their now-familiar magic, Shishkin should at least have an exceptional opponent to aim at as they set off up the hill at Cheltenham.