Saturday: 3.35 Ascot
SBK Clarence House Chase (Grade 1) | 2m1f | 5yo+ | ITV4/Sky
Nicky Henderson is in no doubt that he has Shishkin back down to his fighting weight as he puts on the line an unbeaten record over fences against that of Energumene.
The six-time champion trainer fielded plenty of criticism when Shishkin bypassed a pre-Christmas assignment in the Tingle Creek Chase – a decision subsequently vindicated when the horse returned poor test results – and had him ready to start off his season at Kempton.
A ten-length defeat of the Tingle Creek winner Greaneteen reads pretty well, but plenty of on-course observers remarked on how big they felt Shishkin was for his return to action, a sentiment that Henderson fully endorses.
"He's quite a lot lighter than at Kempton, that's for certain," said Henderson. "He's back down to what was his normal racing weight from last year.
"He was considerably heavier at Kempton when he was just about alright. The scales tell you he's quite a long way to being a fitter horse."
No British-based trainer is more focused on the Cheltenham Festival than Henderson, while Energumene hails from a Willie Mullins yard that has had more winners there than any other.
Henderson said: "I hope everybody else is looking forward to it because the two people who probably aren't are Willie and I.
"One of them is going to be beaten, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's the end of the Champion Chase. It's probably not what we expected, to meet this early. But it's where we've both chosen to go."
Paul Townend: 'This is the stiffest task he's had'
You might expect to find an 'Energumene' ranting and raving at the Parisian equivalent of Speaker's Corner, but there has been nothing weird or strange about their equine namesake's progression through the chasing ranks.
Willie Mullins' eight-year-old was just 2-1 to beat Shishkin in last season's Arkle when he was ruled out with lameness the weekend before the festival.
Having recovered, the son of Denham Red sauntered to a 16-length success on his last start as a novice at the Punchestown festival, and he was brutally dismissive of inferior rivals in the Hilly Way Chase at Cork on his return to action under Sean O'Keeffe last month.
Ten months on, that delayed meeting with Shishkin will now take place, and Mullins said: "It's going to be tough for my horse having his first run for me in England.
"Like Shishkin, he comes here unbeaten [over fences] and the disadvantage for us is we're playing an away match on a track we haven't raced on before. But he's in good form and hopefully it's going to be a race to savour for whoever comes out victorious.
"He's travelled over very well, we're very happy on that front, and looking forward to the race."
Regular partner Paul Townend is as eager as anyone to find out how the two star chasers measure up and said: "I'm just delighted to be on his back, whether it was at Ascot or at Leopardstown. It's a big clash and I suppose Shishkin sets the standard. We will have to give it a go at some stage so why not this weekend?"
Speaking to Ladbrokes, Townend added: "It's hard to be confident taking on a horse with Shishkin's ability. He looks like a champion, but Energumene is in good form and we'll give it our best.
"This is the stiffest task he has taken on, but he showed a lot of potential as a novice and his first run back at Cork was very good."
First Flow not there to make up numbers
The fact that last year's Clarence House winner comes here off the back of a Grade 2 success yet is still a double-figure price tells you everything you need to know about the reputations of Shishkin and Energumene.
However, a 14-1 starting price did not deter trainer Kim Bailey and owner Tony Solomons 12 months ago, and the First Flow camp are happy once again to be out of the limelight.
"I suppose it's quite nice to be coming in under the radar and it's a bit like last year, when we weren't really fancied," said jockey David Bass. "Everyone is talking about the two horses, and I just have to try and enjoy the race and hope that he can run really well."
First Flow has a record of 2311 at Ascot, and he showed when winning the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon last month that he retains the form that catapulted him from handicap company to Graded performer last winter.
"He is much better going right-handed and so a big galloping track this way round is ideal, that's why Ascot suits him," said Bass. "He seems to have really excelled at the track and if we were ever going to take on those two horses it would be at this course.
"I rode him a couple of times last week and he feels great. I got it very wrong about the trip last time and he saw out the two and a half miles really well. He's a very strong stayer over two miles one at Ascot which will hopefully help us."
Amoola Gold is also something of a course specialist, albeit in handicap company, a fact reflected in his likely three-figure price.
Trainer Dan Skelton said: "He's got an absolutely mammoth task on his plate, but he's good around Ascot and there's plenty of prize-money."