Clock counts down to Shishkin v Energumene at Ascot

Top two-mile chasers from Henderson and Mullins yards set for Grade One head to head

What's rare is wonderful so perhaps it's inevitable the hype machine is in overdrive ahead of Saturday's head to head between steeplechasing's top two-mile chasers, Shishkin and Energumene.

Time was jump racing's biggest stars would regularly clash en route to the Cheltenham Festival although that time has felt increasingly distant in recent years.

Not only does the festival cast an overarching influence over everything beforehand but even at it there is greater scope for the biggest names to avoid each other in pursuit of easier pickings.

So Ascot's Grade One highlight, the SBK Clarence House, represents something of a throwback.


Six weeks from Cheltenham the two dominant horses at the top of the Queen Mother Champion Chase betting are set to square up and as head to heads go it's got a lot to recommend it.

Each is unbeaten over fences and loaded with the potential for better to come. Both appear to be superb jumpers. And there’s a twist of the Anglo-Irish element for extra seasoning.

Last year’s Cheltenham rout by the visitors makes a genuine rivalry even extra welcome.

Pinning all sorts of comparisons to past racing head to heads, never mind other sports, might mean a touch of overegging but it’s hardly surprising in the circumstances.

Even so, such is the habit of top trainers eager to get to Cheltenham as smoothly as possible that sceptics might be reluctant to believe the clash is actually “on” until the tape goes up.

However, even on a weekend when the perpetually popular Grand National hero Tiger Roll runs over hurdles at Navan, and Allaho is in action at Thurles on Sunday, there is no question what's centre stage.

Racing has an unfortuante habit of quickly reducing such anticipation to rubble either with a blunder or a mishap.

There’s also the fact that while one of the two other Clarence House runners is a no hoper, last year’s winner First Flow is far from a mug.

But on the face of it this is a chance for last season’s top two-mile novices to finally put it up to each other.

A clash in last season’s Arkle was ruled out with a late setback to Energumene and Shishkin enjoyed a virtual solo.

Connections are making comparisons with a straight face to Nicky Henderson’s former great two-mile stars Sprinter Sacre and Altior and there was an authority to Shishkin’s comeback victory at Kempton that was impressive.

If that featured a late thrust then Energumene’s reappearance at Cork last month was all about galloping power. The race-fit Notebook couldn’t cope with it and some time experts were adamant most other horses would have struggled too against Willie Mullins’s charge

It makes for a delicately poised situation.

Shishkin is on home ground but has been known to jump left. It’s an away game for Energumene but despite conceding on experience he is still officially rated all but on a par with his higher profile rival.

"Shishkin is a little bit ahead on form at the moment but our fellow hasn't had the opportunity to match that. This will be his chance," said Patrick Mullins. "There are a few horses that'll catch your eye every morning at Closutton and he [Energumene] is one of them. He has a presence about him."

In Cheltenham terms it all promises to be hugely informative: on its own terms it’s a race to savour.

Tiger Roll's appearances are always to be savoured so the dual-National hero and five-time Cheltenham Festival winner's 44th career appearance under top weight in the Navan handicap hurdle will be watched intently. Jockey Rob James, who sat out a four month suspension last year, will be aboard Tiger Roll for the first time.

Sunday's action at Thurles has Allaho bidding for back-to-back victories in the Grade Two Horse & Jockey Hotel Chase. The Mullins star won the race, still widely known as the Kinloch Brae, 12 months ago en route to a spectacular success in Cheltenham's Ryanair.

Much quicker ground conditions this time is a different factor as is a small field of just three rivals, although all of them can boast their own Grade One winning form.

Allaho has been given time to recover from what appeared to be a gruelling effort in last month's John Durkan. On that occasion he showed admirable resolution which, on top of his flamboyant jumping, looks set to make him very hard to beat in another potential Ryanair attempt in March.

Sunday's most valuable heat is the €50,000 Coolmore Mares Novice Chase where Minella Melody is set to launch her career over fences. Henry De Bromhead's runner failed to strike last season, finishing the campaign with a second to Stormy Ireland at Punchestown. Now she jumps straight into the deep end over fences against winners such as Robinnia and Jeremys Flame although Minella Melody did win her sole point to point.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column