In terms of sheer spectacle, the Cheltenham Festival was nothing short of magnificent. Thousands of spectators descended upon Prestbury Park as four days of horse racing culminated with the boisterous ‘Cheltenham roar’ fully restored.
It had been the first time since March 2020 that a full crowd had been able to make their way to the Cotswolds, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing the last Festival behind closed doors. This time though, normality was resumed and things didn’t disappoint.
While the Gold Cup may have dominated the majority of the headlines, there was also a great deal of excitement for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, a race dubbed as the rematch between Shishkin and Energumene — one that was proving increasingly tough to call in
While the race on day two boasted plenty of other previous Grade One winners, including the likes of Henry de Bromhead-trained Envoi Allen and last year’s winner Put The Kettle On, the narrative was solely focused on Shishkin and Energumene, Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins, a clash of the titans squaring off for the second time. Either horse could have won in todays horse racing tips.
Both horses had garnered quite the reputation after January’s first encounter in the Clarence House Chase. While Henderson won the battle that day at Ascot, the war was far from over, as Shishkin just edged the first race to set up an interesting rematch at Cheltenham, one both trainers were looking forward to.
“There’s going to be (a) rematch,” Henderson said after Ascot. “I always said I hope it’s a good race today because then it won’t ruin the Champion Chase and they will be back to fight it out together.”
Heading into the race, rumours were circling that Mullins-trained Energumene had picked up a knock and wouldn’t be present. Despite any concerns, the eight-year-old travelled well whilst Shishkin started rather lethargically with Nico de Boinville aboard. In the end, the race proved to be much different from what it promised on paper, but Paul Townend continued to pull ahead in tough conditions, leaving De Boinville and stablemate Chacun Pour Soi behind.
Shishkin continued to struggle with the ground whilst 40/1 outsider Funambule Sivola was having the race of his life. Indeed, the Venetia Williams-trained seven-year-old may have struggled to catch Energumene, but it’s a race he won’t be forgetting any time soon, beating Envoi Allen to finish second, whilst Mullins claimed another Cheltenham win, after it took him until the end of day one to secure his first of the Festival.
At the other end of the trail, De Boinville was forced to pull Shishkin up six from home, something that surprised even Mullins.
“We just thought we got the tactics completely wrong at Ascot so the plan today was to follow Shishkin” Mullins said. “The problem Paul then had was you could see after two fences Shishkin wasn’t handling the ground so it then became a case of when was Paul going to forget about Shishkin and ride the race.
“Nico was wise in pulling Shishkin up, you could clearly see he hated the ground.”