The Arkle is the first of the crucial Bonus Races in the Tote Ten to Follow Cheltenham Mini Game. The stage is set for a heavyweight clash between two powerhouse stables in Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson.
Both masters of Prestbury Park, with 72 and 68 festival winners respectively, they’ve had a stranglehold on this race, training seven of the last ten winners and this year the betting suggests they might have another.
It is a race which tends to pay to follow more fancied runners with eight of the last ten winners returning an SP no bigger than 6/1, six of these being odds-on. On that basis, it would appear this is very much a match between Shishkin and Energumene.
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Entries are open now, with players able to make changes to their stables up until 10pm on Monday 15th March. Remember, in the event of a dead heat the stable entered earliest will be declared the winner.
Shishkin set to confirm Superstar status?
Nicky Henderson’s, Shishkin has been touted for stardom ever since his debut and is yet to put a hoof wrong over a fence. He ticks the Cheltenham form box, having already won at the festival when enduring a torrid trip and avoiding a pile up to win last year’s Supreme.
Very much of the same ilk as Altior and reminiscent in running style, often hitting flat spots but ending up superior to rivals, he has taken all before him in the two-mile novice chase division this season, winning his three races by a combined total of 44.5 lengths.
If you had to pick holes, all of his wins this season came in four-runner fields, although Tamaroc Du Mathan’s win in the Pendil certainly gives Shishkin’s Wayward Lad win a nice look now. Regardless, the Arkle will be a different proposition to any chasing task he’s faced so far and he is unlikely to get his own way. Eneurgumene and Allmankind are likely to jump out and set a strong early pace, which Shishkin has yet to contend with over a fence. This could play into his hands, however, with the Arkle being a race where they often go too fast too soon, setting the race up for a closer. You can expect to see him dropped in with Nico producing him when swinging for home.
The Emergence of Energumene
At Christmas, Shishkin was considered the British banker of the meeting, but since then Willie Mullins’ Energumene has emerged as a more than worthy challenger. He comes here off the back of a 10-length rout at the Dublin Racing Festival.
Not of the same stature over a hurdle as Shishkin, he has improved remarkably for a fence. His three wins this season have been characterised by slick and effortless jumping which will ensure he’s a real danger to Shishkin’s chances. Whilst Shishkin has been beating up lesser horses in small fields Energumene has been making some very good horses look completely inferior. His win at Leopardstown saw him post a similar performance on the clock to Chacun Pour Soi.
It should not be overlooked that Willie Mullins sees this as the best crop of novice chasers he has ever had. When you consider the talent that has gone through his yard in recent years it is a lofty assessment of Energumene’s talents.
The only issue is he is yet to prove himself at Cheltenham. He gives the impression the tracks undulations and famous hill won’t be a problem, yet it is somewhat of an unknown and as we know Festival form is crucial when searching for winners.
But is it just a two-horse race?
So, who should you pick in your Stable? One tactic could be to have both to surely guarantee you the minimum of 62 points awarded for picking a Grade 1 winner of a bonus race and the runner up. However, looking beyond the protagonists this is a very strong field with Grade 1 form aplenty, making it the most competitive Arkle in recent memory.
Dan Skelton is extremely bullish on the chances of his five-year-old Allmankind, who has looked impressive this season beating well thought of types such as Sky Pirate, Hitman and Eldorado Allen. Alongside this he brings Grade 1 form into the race having won the Henry VIII Novice Chase with an aggressive front-running display, which is sure to put much of the Arkle field left searching for a breather.
Captain Guinness is another horse who looks to have a big day in him at some stage. He was travelling into contention in last year’s Supreme before being brought down and was closest to Energumene prior to falling two from home at the Dublin Racing Festival. But it looks likely he will be waiting a little longer for his day in the sun.
Other entries to note are Willie Mullins second string Franco De Port who also brings Grade 1 chase form from his Racing Post Novices Chase win at Christmas. Last year’s Champion Hurdle third, Darver Star and Grade 1 winning hurdler Fusil Raffles complete the list of interests for what is going to be a transfixing two miles.
All told, it is hard to see any of the outsiders being able to defeat SHISHKIN or Energumene who look to be in a different class. Shishkin just edges it as the stable pick due to Festival form being in the book. However, its near impossible to split the pair and would be hard to put you off selecting either or both in your stable. It is a choice which may just come down to which side of the Irish sea you are from.