2021 Cheltenham Tips – Can Shishkin Be Stopped In The Arkle Chase

Arkle Chase Tips

In the latest of his Cheltenham previews, Daniel Overall takes a look at the Arkle Chase, one of the key events on Cheltenham Festival Day 1. The race is set to feature the first Cheltenham banker of the meeting in the shape of Shishkin. 

Arkle Chase Overview

The first Grade 1 chase of the festival and the Irish have won five of the last six renewals, four of which have gone the way of Willie Mullins. Nicky Henderson broke the recent Irish grip on this race with Altior in 2017 and he is the leading trainer in this race, with six victories since 1991.

Put The Kettle On sprung a surprise last year when winning at 16/1 for Henry De Bromhead, joining Western Warhorse (2014, 33/1) as only the second winner to return at a double-figure price this century. Six of the last ten runnings were won by an odds-on favourite while no renewal has had more than 12 runners since the introduction of the Marsh in 2011.

Shishkin a potential Superstar?

Shishkin (8/11) did extremely well to win last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle having endured a troubled passage. He looked outpaced approaching three out and, when beginning to make headway, he was badly hampered by the fall of Elixir D’Ainay at the second last. Despite that, he rallied well to head the smooth-travelling Abacadabras close to home, with the pair pulling eleven lengths clear of Chantry House in third.

Installed as the 5/1 favourite for the 2021 Arkle following his Supreme success, those odds were quickly slashed following his ultra-impressive chasing debut at Kempton in November; a performance that Nicky Henderson described as a “ten out of ten”. A natural over his fences, he cruised clear of the 137-rated Mick Pastor with ease in a performance that was judged to be just 2lb shy of his Supreme win on Racing Post Ratings. 

While Altior and Epatante disappointed over Christmas for Seven Barrows, Shishkin certainly did not as he won the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase in decisive fashion. Just two lengths separated the front three as they jumped the third last, but Shishkin pulled clear in the manner of a very talented horse. He was 2.7 seconds quicker than the Desert Orchid winner, Nube Negra, despite carrying 2lb more, and he was over 3 seconds quicker than that horse inside the final 3 furlongs despite barely coming out of second gear.

Emphatic again in the Lightning Novices’ Chase, he beat Eldorado Allen (50/1) by over eight lengths eased down. Colin Tizzard described his grey as “the best two-miler we’ve had” and with an official rating of 149, he’s certainly no mug although it’s worth mentioning that he was 15-lengths behind Allmankind at Sandown. 

Comparisons are already being made with Sprinter Sacre and Altior; while those comparisons may be premature, Shishkin is a hugely exciting prospect. His strength at the finish is reminiscent of Altior and he leaves the impression that he’d have no issue stepping up in trip for all that he has all the tools to make a top-class chaser over the minimum distance. 

Five-year-old winner?

Since the removal of the weight-for-age allowance in 2008, the Arkle has been won exclusively by horses aged six to eight. The last five-year-old winner was Voy Por Ustedes in 2006.

Since then, only seven five-year-olds have lined up in the Arkle; Kruguyrova (2008) and Fakir D’Oudaries (2020) both finished second while His Excellency (2013) was third at 80/1 in a seven-runner renewal; the recent record of five-year-olds isn’t as bad as it appears on the surface.

A Grade 1 winning Juvenile hurdler and third in the Triumph Hurdle, Allmankind (10/1) made a disappointing seasonal reappearance in the Matheson Hurdle, but that below-par performance led to connections sending him over fences; a decision that has proved fruitful thus far.

He impressed with his aggressive display of jumping when comprehensively beating a subsequent winner on his chase debut, successfully translating his front running style to the larger obstacles. He repeated the feat in the Henry VIII at Sandown, beating fellow four-year-olds, Hitman (20/1) and Ga Law (100/1), both of whom look set to step up in trip. 

The Kingmaker on the 13th February is next on the agenda for Allmankind; a race with a fine recent record as a prep for the Arkle. His presence will ensure that there’s no hiding place for his rivals. 

Can Willie Win Again?

Wille Mullins has won four of the last six renewals of this race, and Energumene (13/2) looks to be his main chance this season. An emphatic winner of his sole start over hurdles, he was a relatively unknown quantity at the start of the season, opening as a 40/1 outsider for the Arkle. His chasing debut over 2m4f muddied the waters in terms of his long-term target, having shown a fair deal of pace while also hitting the line powerfully over the intermediate trip.

Dropped in trip for his next start, he again impressed with his quick jumping in beating a couple of useful types in Captain Guinness (20/1) and Blackbow (50/1) in a very good time; he was over 8 seconds quicker than Epson Du Houx, who won the two-mile handicap chase on the same card, carrying 5lbs more. Paul Townend was glowing in his praise of Energumene after the race, who noted that he doesn’t need to lead despite having made all in his two chase starts to date; that will certainly help his cause at Cheltenham with Allmankind also in the line-up. At home on testing ground, he’s likely to run in the Irish Arkle before heading to Cheltenham.

Unexpected (16/1) made a superb start to life over fences when bolting up at Tipperary. The runner-up has done well since and he looks a natural two-mile chaser. However, he made a similarly taking impression on his seasonal debut last season but he failed to build on that effort.

Not seen since October, he’s clearly talented but he does have to prove he can perform on a consistent basis; his half-brother, Great Field, has been similarly enigmatic. It’s also worth noting that 13 of the last 14 Arkle winners had run at Cheltenham previously; a trend that Unexpected and Energumene will have to defy.

Franco De Port (20/1) is already a Grade 1 winner over fences, having won the Racing Post Novice Chase on Boxing Day (or St. Stephen’s Day for the Irish readers!) It was a strange race, with Felix Desjy (33/1) running below-par while Blackbow, seemingly the stable number one, fell at the third fence. Pulled-up in last season’s Coral Cup, Franco De Port needs to prove his aptitude for Cheltenham while he looks as though a step up in trip will bring about further improvement. We’re likely to see him again at the Dublin Racing Festival, which will reveal more about whether he’ll end up here or in the Marsh.

We are yet to see Klassical Dream (22/1) over fences but it’s interesting that he was entered for the race. Janidil (40/1) also holds an entry, although both of his starts over fences to date have come over an intermediate trip. Fifth in last year’s Albert Bartlett, he would seem more likely to line up in the Marsh.

From the Kim Muir to the Arkle?

The emergence of Sky Pirate (20/1) as a force in the two-mile division has been one of the surprises of the season. With no wins and five seconds in ten starts over fences over trips ranging from 2m3f to 3m2f, the list of colourful adjectives against Sky Pirate’s name were lengthy and unflattering; but it appears he was simply running over the wrong trip. 

After comfortably winning a pair of handicaps off 134 and 145, Jonjo O’Neill’s eight-year-old finds himself on a mark of 152. He has the option of the Grand Annual, while connections may look to the County Hurdle in order exploit his twelve pounds lower mark over the smaller obstacles.

He’d be an interesting contender in an Arkle, especially a strongly run renewal which we are likely to get here. It’s difficult to envisage him beating the likes of Shishkin but he would add a different dimension to the race. 

ARKLE CHASE BIG-RACE VERDICT

The presence of Allmankind and Energumene means we look sure to have a fiercely run renewal. Both are respected but they may well set the race up perfectly for Shishkin. The Supreme/Arkle double has only been done three times since 1965, with Shishkin looking to join Flyingbolt, Douvan and Altior in that exclusive club. This will be his toughest test over fences to date, but Nicky Henderson looks to have another top-class two-mile chaser on his hands. 

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