34 horses have been entered for the Sporting Life Arkle and John Ingles looks at the top five on Timeform ratings - and no surprise who's in at one.
Last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Shishkin has been ante-post favourite for the Arkle ever since last year’s Festival and two impressive wins over fences to date have strengthened his claims to another success at Cheltenham. Stable-companion Altior was the last horse to win the Supreme and then the Arkle twelve months later, and Nicky Henderson has chosen a similar path over fences so far with Shishkin to the one he took with Altior four years ago.
Both his wins have have come at Kempton, his latest victory in the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase an exceptional performance by a horse having just his second start over fences. Shishkin’s thirteen-length winning margin was visually impressive and backed up by a really good performance on the clock. As well as Altior, another couple of Henderson’s Arkle winners Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig won the Wayward Lad on the way to the Festival.
Shishkin is likely to have one more run beforehand in either the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick or the Game Spirit at Newbury, though Henderson also has Altior (who won the race as a novice) pencilled in for the latter.
Willie Mullins has won four of the last six Arkles and has unearthed a leading contender again with the French-bred Energumene who is by the same sire as his 2015 winner Un de Sceaux. The early signs are that the very lightly-raced Energumene could be a similar type to his former stablemate as he has made an excellent start over fences, winning both his races at Gowran and Naas.
He put up a high-class effort at Naas when making all to beat fellow Arkle possible Captain Guinness by eight and a half lengths, Paul Townend only needing to ride him out under hands and heels to assert after an accurate round of jumping. The Henry de Bromhead-trained runner-up, incidentally, had been shaping well behind Shishkin in the Supreme last season when brought down two out.
Energumene holds Grade 1 entries at the Dublin Racing Festival in the longer Flogas Novice Chase (he won over two and a half miles on his chasing debut), as well as in the Leopardstown version of the Arkle.
Having started out on the Flat, Allmankind doesn’t have a typical background for a leading Arkle contender, but he showed plenty of ability as a juvenile hurdler for Dan Skelton last season, winning the Finale at Chepstow and finishing third in the Triumph at Cheltenham.
Quickly switched to fences this autumn, Allmankind has proven better still, with his slick jumping from the front making him impossible to catch in his two starts at Warwick and Sandown. A confirmed front runner, Allmankind put up another sound display of jumping to win the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown in December by two and a half lengths from fellow four-year-old Hitman.
As a four-year-old, Allmankind benefited from a weight concession before the turn of the year, though that’s something he’ll have to live without by the time of the Festival. According to Skelton, he’s due to return to Warwick for the Kingmaker in February, and therefore a potential clash with Shishkin before the Arkle.
Willie Mullins has another with potential to be a leading Arkle candidate in Unexcepted, though he hasn’t been seen out since making a big impression on his chasing debut at Tipperary back in October. Unexcepted carries the J. P. McManus colours like his half-brother Great Field, a top-class though headstrong chaser for the same connections.
Unexcepted doesn’t have the same tearaway tendencies, but he made much of the running to win hard held at Tipperary, after jumping superbly, by nine lengths from the useful Entoucas. Unexcepted doesn’t seem to have been the easiest to train, having been absent for over two years after his debut in France when winning over hurdles at Fairyhouse on his first start for Mullins last season.
But an entry in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown in February is an encouraging sign after his latest absence since the autumn. He’s an exciting prospect.
Despite this being his third season over fences for Jonjo O’Neill, Sky Pirate still enjoys novice status. In his first season over fences he was campaigned over three miles plus, finishing seventh in the Kim Muir at the Festival. He showed useful form that season, and has always had plenty of ability, winning twice over hurdles earlier in his career, but temperament had got in the way of Sky Pirate winning over fences until very recently.
He had a breathing operation over the summer and has been tongue tied in all his starts this season, but since finishing a good fifth in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, a drop to two miles has seemingly been the key to him. Tom Scudamore delivered him off a strong pace when he belatedly got off the mark over fences in a handicap at Cheltenham in December, beating the progressive Ibleo, and Jonjo O’Neill junior got a willing response from him when he followed up at Warwick recently.
It remains to be seen if Sky Pirate has another race over fences before the Festival, where the Grand Annual would be an obvious alternative to the Arkle – he currently holds an entry in the Betfair Hurdle beforehand.