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Press Release 23rd February 2024 Cheltenham

Nicky Henderson has insisted Shishkin “deserves” to be in this year’s Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup and has likened criticism of his performances this season to that of a “criminal who’s just been let out of prison”.


The nine-year-old has won 10 of his 15 career starts over fences, including most recently the Grade Two Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury on February 10th.


However, he refused to start when he was the 8-13 favourite for the Nirvana Spa 1965 Chase at Ascot in November and then unseated jockey Nico de Boinville just after clearing the penultimate fence while leading the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.


That led to questions being raised over how competitive he might be in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 15th, which is celebrating its 100th year in 2024.


But Henderson said: “I think it’s an open enough race. It’s open enough to be in it anyway. He deserves to be in it. He would have been first or second in the King George, let’s face it, and I honestly think he would have won.


“But it was still a hell of a performance for his first run of the year. Even if he finished second that was as good a trial as you were going to see and then he did that nicely at Newbury so I think we come into it on a pretty good stride, which is pretty essential isn’t it? …


“It’s funny how going into Newbury the other day he was suddenly treated like some sort of criminal who’s just been let out of prison! ‘If he doesn’t show up today where is he?!’


“I mean he’s done nothing wrong. The King George wasn’t his fault. He didn’t fall, he just knocked his leg. Anyone can do that. It was just pure bad luck.


“I have to say that Ascot was his fault. It was certainly nobody else’s! Yeah, he’d been a naughty boy one day at Ascot but that doesn’t make him a criminal and that’s what it felt like going into Newbury. Everyone was saying ‘will he turn up?’ But why wouldn’t he? What did he do wrong in the King George? He’d have won the King George, I know he would.”


Shishkin will need to show every ounce of stamina he has if he is to stay the three miles and two and a half furlongs of the Gold Cup trip.


But Henderson pointed to his victory in the Alder Hey Aintree Bowl at Aintree in April last year over 3m 1f and added: “Nico was happy enough half way through the King George to say ‘we’re not going quick enough – I’m going on’ and that’s against proven stayers, so he was obviously pretty confident he was going to stay.


“We know he stays – I mean look at him at Aintree last year. It looked like he was going to need all of the three miles to get to Ahoy Senor and when he got there he was gone. He finished very strongly at Newbury and I think he would have finished very strongly at Kempton, but we’ll never know.”


Henderson went on to say that he that it is “very unlikely” that Shishkin will be seen in cheekpieces next month.


He said: “I won’t say I haven’t thought about it since Newbury, but I would say it’s very unlikely. I can’t see us doing it if I’m honest. I promise you that it was nothing to do with why he didn’t start at Ascot…


“He just races a little bit behind the bridle sometimes. Ruby (Walsh) was at me the whole time – ‘you’ve got to put cheekpieces on this horse!’ So I did what Ruby told me to do and look where it got us! It didn’t cause the problem but I certainly left them off for the King George and at Newbury.


“I think if I was going to have done it then I’d have done it at Newbury to see what effect it might have. We had tried them before Ascot. I’d never run a horse with cheekpieces before schooling in them. That’s really a safety piece. Running a horse in blinkers or cheekpieces – you’d always school it first.”


Asked how Shishkin would compare to previous Henderson’s previous Cheltenham Gold Cup winners, Long Run in 2011 and Bobs Worth two years later, he added: “Very favourably.


“If you’re only judging them on home work, well Bobsworth was just the most amazing character because he showed you absolutely nothing and was as laidback as Constitution Hill and was just the nicest horse who would just gallop and gallop and gallop until he could gallop no more. He was just brilliant. Long Run was a very talented horse.”


If Shishkin is to land the most prestigious trophy in Jump racing then he will have to overcome last year’s winner and this year’s favourite, Galopin Des Champs.


While Henderson admits he is impressed by the eight-year-old, who was last seen winning the four-runner Paddy power Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown at the beginning of February, he is adamant he will not be changing any of his own tactics.


Referring to the Willie Mullins-trained Galopin Des Champs, he explained : “He’s very solid. Sometimes I don’t think he’s as flashy as you think he might be. He’s a fine, big, good looking horse and he’s very classy. He gets the job done.


“There are moments when you wonder and then he gets there. That’s a bit like a lot of these horses. When Constitution Hill is doing his real thing, and I hope he’ll do it, again he’s commanded the performance from beginning to end really. Shishkin doesn’t. A lot of them don’t. He’s won a Gold Cup and comes into it off good prep races…


“Our job is to concentrate on what we’ve got rather than what anyone else has. You’ve got to have a tactical plan going into the race and we obviously will, but invariably those get thrown out of the window after about a furlong.


“We’re not going to ride any differently just because of Galopin Des Champs. He’s going to do his thing and we’re going to do ours. I don’t think we have to sit on his tail or will he be sitting on our tail? I don’t know. Willie will have his plan and I’ll have my plan and the jockeys have probably got a completely different plan and they won’t listen to either of us!”


Henderson also went on to describe why the Cheltenham Gold Cup is still the pinnacle of the sport. He said: “The Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup are the two most important races as far as I’m concerned because you’ve got the best horse if you win it and that’s what a race is all about. After I’ve had a horse for a week the owner says ‘which race are we going to run it in at Cheltenham?!’”


Meanwhile Henderson gave a positive update on his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase contender Jonbon, who had a high profile visitor this morning.


The trainer said: “He schooled this morning. AP (McCoy) was here. He’s in good form. He jumped 10 fences, which is more than he’s going to jump on the Wednesday (of The Festival)!”


Referring to the Champion Chase on March 13th, he went on: “They’re going to go some gallop and I think that suits him. He wants to be going forward, forward, forward.


“It looks as if Edwardstone is suddenly getting the pacemaking role. He looked bloody good at Newbury. But that’s probably not a bad thing for us, otherwise I’d have been happy to have made the running with him.”


Asked for AP McCoy’s verdict on him he continued: “Good. He’d love to ride him himself. Of all the horses, I know he would love to ride him. He’d suit him. Anybody could ride him but he’d take a bit of knowing as well.


“AP has watched him school so many hundreds of times. There’s one fence in our row of five fences – the middle one he always meets it on the wrong side but it’s where he’s most impressive. He can just dance – one, two, three, boom – and he’s so quick. And yet he always meets that fence wrong. It’s a funny thing but he did it twice and exactly the same thing both times. Always meets it wrong… If Constitution Hill is straightforward then Jonbon is a little it the opposite. He tests you a little bit.”


Henderson is excited to pitch Jonbon against Irish challenger El Fabiolo, after their Clarence House Chase clash at Ascot was scuppered by a frozen track.


El Fabiolo was then not entered in the rearranged race at Cheltenham later the same month and Henderson said: “I was really looking forward to Ascot with El Fabiolo. We were absolutely tip top. I was feeling really confident that day and I was really looking forward to it. We were very prepared for it.”


Jonbon went on to run in the rescheduled race at Cheltenham on January 27th and was 1-4 favourite, but mistakes led to a shock defeat at the hands of Elixir De Nutz.


Asked if he is concerned about having had a hard race that day in preparation for The Festival, Henderson concluded: “I don’t think so, no. He might have had a harder race than you might have thought he was likely to have from a betting angle, with people assuming he was just going to canter round and deal with it. But until he made that mistake coming down the hill everything had gone really nicely.”


Henderson also ran the rule over his JCB Triumph Hurdle hopeful Sir Gino, who was an impressive winner on Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham, having won in slightly less emphatic style at Kempton Park in December.


He said: “He’s only had three races in his life but he’s a real pro. He’s grand. He’s a lovely big horse. I think we always thought he was very good but I didn’t want to get too carried away before we actually got to see it.


“Luckily the spies hadn’t actually latched onto him before Cheltenham – but we thought he was pretty smart. He’s only had two races for us. He had one in France before we got hold of him but he’s a very talented horse.


“He wasn’t very good at Kempton, which I was surprised about, but I think most of that was baby-ness. He hit the front and kind of thought ‘where am I?’ He missed a couple on the way and was very good at a couple, but he got very goofy on the run-in from the second last.


“Normally we’d expect these French horses to be able to do it in their sleep. They are very, very good at schooling young horses. They start with them as yearlings... the French horses can nearly all do it blindfolded. Now he didn’t do it blindfolded at Kempton – he was untidy - so we did quite a bit between Kempton and Cheltenham.”


Henderson admitted he watched the Dublin Racing Festival expecting to see a rival to trouble him at Cheltenham, but he continued: “The race I was watching most carefully at the ‘Willie Mullins Racing Festival’ (DRF) was the four year old hurdle to see what they’ve got.


“It looked as if they finished in a bit of a heap but I was expecting something to jump out of that race and to see what Willie’s got, but it didn’t look obvious. There were some nice horses in there, don’t get me wrong, but there was nothing that could do what Sir Gino did at Cheltenham that day.”


Asked if Sir Gino might be pitted against Constitution Hill in the 2025 Unibet Champion Hurdle, Henderson laughed: “He might be, but let’s just get through this year first, shall we?!”


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