Cheltenham: Energumene lands first Champion Chase for Willie Mullins

Townend capitalises on Shishkin’s difficulties as adaptability proves key on shifting ground

Willie Mullins filled the last notable gap in his big-race CV when Energumene finally gave him success in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Where Douvan & Co failed in the past, the horse whose name loosely translates from French as “weirdo” ultimately succeeded in a decidedly strange race.

Shishkin had memorably beaten Energumene at Ascot in January but barely raised a gallop this time with the odds-on favourite being pulled up at the eighth fence to groans from the packed stands.

At the very next obstacle, the winner’s stable companion Chacun Puor Soi blundered and shot Patrick Mullins out of the saddle.

Suddenly one of the festival's most eagerly anticipated races got transformed into a damp squib as Paul Townend safely guided Energumene around the outside before eventually going clear up the hill.

The 5-2 shot had 8½ lengths in hand on the 40-1 runner-up Funambule Sivola with Envoi Allen a tired third.

None of which mattered to Mullins who ended the day with his record festival haul extended to 82.

Earlier, Sir Gerhard justified odds-on in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle while Facile Vega lived up to his reputation in the bumper with a victory at 15-8.

Adaptability

On a day when so much revolved around deteriorating ground conditions, adaptability was vital and Energumene coped best in the big race.

“We just felt we had completely the wrong tactics at Ascot. But today it wasn’t about tactics so much. Shishkin just didn’t handle that ground and Nico [De Boinville] wisely pulled him up,” Mullins explained afterwards.

“I was really disappointed about Chacun Pour Soi. I thought he was absolutely loving it out there so it is frustrating.

“I am of course delighted to win this race. I haven’t done things as dramatically as Henry [De Bromhead] did last year [completing Cheltenham ‘Triple Crown’] but yes, we’re getting there!” he added.

Mullins conceded the race turned into an anti-climax although still nerve-wracking from his point of view.

In contrast the Shishkin camp barely had time to warm up any nerves before signals were out that the 5-6 favourite hated the ground that had turned heavy on the back of significant rainfall.

“To be honest with you, you could nearly tell going to the first fence that he wasn’t where he wanted to be and I knew why. He just couldn’t get out of it [the ground].

"We are in very extreme ground. And yes he's won in soft ground. But you're going around in heavy that is not his scene obviously," Nicky Henderson said.

“I walked round on Sunday and it was soft. And you need very, very little to change it. And we’ve had very, very much,” he added.

It was a satisfying result for Paul Townend who’d waited until the last moment to opt for Energumene rather than Chacun Pour Soi.

“It was a headache trying to pick which one to ride and it was hard to get off Chacun,” he admitted.

“Going on didn’t work at Ascot and we rolled the dice and tried to chance it. It probably didn’t matter because Shiskhkin was going but we rolled the dice and they came up,” he added.

Having swerved Constitution Hill’s epic performance on Day 1, the dice also worked in the Mullins team’s favour when Sir Gerhard justified short odds in the opener.

Having raced freely in the early stages it was hard work for Sir Gerhard up the hill but he had 3½ lengths in hand of his old rival Three Stripe Life at the line.

A chance to bump into Constitution Hill in next year’s Champion Hurdle hasn’t been ruled out either.

“He’s left us in the dilemma whether to go novice chasing or maybe go back to the Champion Hurdle,” Mullins said.

‘Relished it’

It took a lot to pierce the sodden gloom in the bumper but Facile Vega’s potential still shone clearly as he overcame the mud to pull clear of his market rival American Mike up the hill.

It bought Mullins’s tally in the race he has dominated like no other to 12 although Facile Vega carries a reputation like few others.

“I was really worried about conditions but he relished it,” said Mullins who praised the stewards for getting the final race run.