Mullins and Henderson set to lock horns at Ascot

Top handlers ready Energumene and Shishkin for Grade One Clarence House Chase

Nico de Boinville aboard Shishkin clears the last to win The Betway Sidney Banks Memorial Novices’ Hurdle at Huntingdon last February. File photograph: Getty

Nico de Boinville aboard Shishkin clears the last to win The Betway Sidney Banks Memorial Novices’ Hurdle at Huntingdon last February. File photograph: Getty

 

Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson, the two most successful trainers in Cheltenham history, aren’t blinking on a rare pre-festival head to head between Energumene and Shiskhkin at Ascot on Saturday.

The two horses that dominate betting for the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March are among just a handful of contenders left in the Grade One SBK Clarence House Chase after Monday’s acceptance stage.

Shishkin has been installed a 4-9 favourite to emerge on top at Ascot with Mullins’s latest two-mile star Energumene rated a 9-4 shot.

It presents the unlikely prospect of a genuine heavyweight Anglo-Irish clash just weeks prior to Cheltenham.

The prospect of Shishkin v Energumene in the Arkle had been one of the most eagerly anticipated clashes at Cheltenham last year only for a late setback to rule out the Irish star.

However a clash between the best two milers in Ireland and Britain now looks like it could be on the cards.

That it is Mullins and Henderson who it seems are intent on staring each other down in January is notable.

Both have mastered the craft of getting their horses to peak for Cheltenham like no one else.

Mullins’s record tally of 78 winners, and Henderson’s 70, indicates how successful their ability to peak at the festival has proved.

Henderson in particular has attracted flak for taking a “safety first” position including when taking Altior out of the 2020 Tingle Creek.

“I’d prefer if there was a ferry strike in Ireland or something but it doesn’t look like there will be!” joked the English man on Monday.

“He [Shishkin] won’t be doing much between now and the race, I think. He doesn’t need to do much anyway. Nico [de Boinville] might feel he wants to jump a fence on him midweek at some stage but he might also think there’s nothing to gain from that either so we’ll see,” added Henderson.

Shishkin returned to action with a victory in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas.

Energumene also won his sole start of the season to date in Cork’s Hilly Way Chase last month. He missed out on a Christmas appearance at Leopardstown when Mullins opted to run Chacun Pour Soi instead only for the latter to miss out with what the trainer described as a hamstring problem.

Energumene has a potential alternative to Saturday’s race as he is entered in the upcoming Ladbrokes Dublin Chase at Leopardstown.

However Mullins has already expressed unease at the prospect of running his top steeplechase horses at the Dublin Racing Festival if ground conditions aren’t soft enough.

Mullins completed a hat-trick of Clarence House victories between 2016-18 through Un de Sceaux.

Henderson won it in 2019 and 2013 with Altior and Sprinter Sacre respectively and Shishkin, who is unbeaten in half a dozen starts to date over fences, is favourite to emulate those two with victory in the Champion Chase in March.

Last year’s winner, First Flow, is also among five horses left in the weekend highlight alongside the Tingle Creek runner-up Hitman and the likely outsider Amoola Gold.

Jerry McGrath retires

In other news, a stalwart of the Henderson team, jockey Jerry McGrath, has been forced to retire from the saddle.

McGrath (31) from Waterfall, Co Cork, was a dual-Cheltenham festival winning rider. He has been out of action since a fall last year and has been forced to hang up his boots.

“He’s been a very special man to us. He’s part of the place and we really want him to remain here,” said Henderson.

“We all feel desperately sorry for him and I know he wanted to go on for a bit longer. He wasn’t ready to retire just yet. It broke his heart not to be able to continue because he was very good at it,” he added.

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