Shishkin to take aim at Gold Cup after return to form in Denman Chase

Shishkin to take aim at Gold Cup after return to form in Denman Chase

“He’s got a character,” Nicky Henderson said after the highly popular but mercurial Shishkin’s first success since April 2023 here on Saturday. “Like all good horses, and probably people as well. You’ve got to have a bit of character about you, haven’t you?”

Maybe so, and having gone into the Denman Chase with letters rather than numbers in front of his name, which is never an encouraging sign, a comfortable, drama-free victory was just what Shishkin’s many fans were hoping to see. There was no hint of the mulishness at the start before his intended seasonal debut at Ascot in November, when the 10-year-old refused to race, or any suggestion of a jumping error to match the mistake that caused him to crash out of the King George VI Chase at the second-last on Boxing Day when he held a two-length lead.

But there was also nothing here to shift Shishkin’s pre-race price of around 9-1 for next month’s Cheltenham Gold Cup any closer to that of Galopin Des Champs, the defending champion, who is odds-on at 10-11 for a repeat success on 15 March.

“I think we have to [run in the Gold Cup] because there’s nowhere else to go,” Henderson said. “I don’t think three and a quarter miles is going to frighten him [and ] hopefully we have the starting bug out of our head. He was faultless [at the start] there, even better than he was at Kempton.”

Henderson has mounted almost single-handed British resistance to the dominance of Ireland’s runners at recent Cheltenham Festivals, and spent last weekend in Dublin, watching Willie Mullins win eight straight Grade One races, with horses including Galopin Des Champs that will be the core of his huge team in the West Country next month.

It must have been a slightly unnerving experience, but a 10-1 double on Saturday’s card, completed by Iberico Lord in the valuable Betfair Hurdle, at least confirms that his string is in decent health with the first day of the Festival now less than five weeks away.

“You could look back and say that he [Shishkin] could possibly have won the King George,” Henderson said. “That would have put him in the [Gold Cup] picture, this [win] has put him in the picture, so let’s go.

“You have to be impressed with Galopin Des Champs, but after that, I think there’s an opening, and the Gold Cup is the Gold Cup. You’ve got to give it a go.”

Iberico Lord’s 11-2 success later on the card owed much to a ground-saving ride by Nico de Boinville, Henderson’s stable jockey, who hugged the inside rail for much of the race before taking charge after jumping the final flight. “Nico got it absolutely to the button right,” Henderson said. “He’s gone a proper brave route down the inner and saved every inch.”

Three months after sustaining life-changing injuries in a fall before a flat race at Newcastle in November, the Grand National-winning rider Graham Lee spoke for the first time on Saturday, in a statement issued through the Injured Jockeys Fund.

“Frankly, I’ve been overwhelmed by the unbelievable support and good wishes sent by everyone and I’d like to thank you all so much on behalf of myself, my wife Becky and our ­children, Amy and Robbie,” Lee said.

Lingfield: 1.27 Mick’s Spirit, 1.57 Unavailable, 2.27 Sennockian, 2.57 Repartee, 3.27 The Bunt, 3.57 Kento, 4.27 Stopnsearch.

Exeter: 2.05 Trelawne, 2.35 Lowry’s Bar, 3.05 Favour And Fortune (nb), 3.35 Hititi, 4.05 Galia Des Liteaux (nap), 4.35 Run To Milan, 5.05 Clap Of Thunder.

“I never really considered that I had achieved that much as a jockey and it seems crazy that so many people are thinking of us all. I can’t deny it has been – and continues to be – hard for us all, but these messages help us all so much.

“I would also like to thank the team of nurses [at the James Cook Spinal Unit in Middlesbrough] who are just unbelievable in the around-the-clock care and support they offer us all.

“As most of you know, the injuries I have suffered are life-changing and there is a long road ahead. But we have just received planning ­permission so that work can start to adapt our home in the hope that I will be able to leave hospital at some stage in the next few months. Thank you again. I am truly humbled and grateful.”