Timeform's Tony McFadden runs the rule over Nicky Henderson's big guns for the Cheltenham Festival.
No novice chaser this season has achieved a higher Timeform rating than Shishkin, whose figure of 165P means that he has already hit Timeform's benchmark for being considered a top-class performer (165), while the large ‘P’ suggests he is likely to prove capable of much better form under the right circumstances. Shishkin certainly didn't have favourable circumstances when narrowly winning the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last season as he made a mistake at the third flight and was then hampered twice, including at a crucial point after the second-last when the race was developing. Only a hugely talented horse could have overcome such a troubled passage, and his reputation has reached new heights since going chasing, winning all three starts and producing a level of form good enough to win an average renewal of the Sporting Life Arkle. In an ordinary year Shishkin would be a long odds-on favourite for the Arkle, just like Simonsig and Altior were when scoring for Nicky Henderson, but the presence of Grade 1-winning chasers Allmankind (159) and Energumene (163p) ensures this is an exceptional renewal and doesn't leave him with much margin for error. Still, it is likely that Shishkin is the best horse in the Arkle and, given that Allmankind and Energumene race prominently, he may be at a tactical advantage, so can overcome the stern test.
Epatante (Champion Hurdle)
Up until three weeks ago Epatante looked to hold outstanding claims of retaining her Champion Hurdle crown. She suffered a shock defeat at Kempton over Christmas and there has always been an element of style more than substance to her form, but the paucity of opposition in the two-mile division left her as very much the pick of the bunch and deservedly a short-price favourite for the Champion Hurdle. The landscape changed dramatically at the Dublin Racing Festival, however, due to Honeysuckle's victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle that was so impressive it effectively forced connections to reroute from the Mares' Hurdle to the Champion Hurdle. Honeysuckle's performance in the Irish Champion Hurdle, which extended her unbeaten record under Rules to ten, proved she is just as effective over two miles as she is at two and a half, and the rating she earned is 3 lb higher than what Epatante has achieved. Further spice was added to the division when Goshen put up a sparkling display in the Kingwell Hurdle, bouncing back from some underwhelming efforts and looking much more like the juvenile who had left his rivals in his wake before falling at the final flight in the Triumph Hurdle. When you factor in the weight Goshen must concede to the mares, there is little between Epatante, Goshen and Honeysuckle on Timeform ratings. The 2021 Champion Hurdle will take much more winning than last year's substandard renewal and, while she is not fully exposed and clearly a big player, Epatante’s chance has taken a knock in recent weeks due to events elsewhere.
Altior (Champion Chase)
It is likely that we will see a changing of the guard in the 2021 Champion Chase. Altior was imperious for years, his dominance resulting in a record-breaking 19 consecutive wins over jumps, including back-to-back renewals of the Champion Chase in 2018 and 2019. A late setback meant he was unable to defend his crown last year, but he had already shown signs of vulnerability when suffering a first defeat over obstacles to Cyrname in the 1965 Chase at Ascot. His reappearance effort in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton this season adds further reason to believe that he is a fading force. Altior was beaten three and a half lengths by Nube Negra but more concerning than the result was the laboured nature of the performance. He was soon off the bridle and, though he deserves credit for staying in touch, even his trademark strong finish wasn't fully there. That level of form is about a stone shy of what Chacun Pour Soi has produced this season and the 11-year-old Altior would need to return to the peak of his powers to fend off Willie Mullins' star, who is the highest-rated horse in training.
Champ (Cheltenham Gold Cup)
Champ has certainly not had a conventional Gold Cup preparation, but it could prove to be an effective one as he shaped with significant promise on his belated reappearance in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury last week. Champ signed off in style last season by surging up the Cheltenham hill to overhaul Minella Indo and Allaho in the RSA Chase, thoroughly seeing out that three-mile trip and showing top-class form in the process. It was, therefore, surprising to see him return over two miles having undergone a breathing operation in the interim, but he exceeded expectations in finishing a two-length second to specialist two-miler Sceau Royal, pleasingly jumping better than has often been the case. That should provide a perfect launchpad to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and a quiet approach on the way to the Festival has hardly been a negative in that race in recent seasons – the last three renewals (Native River and Al Boum Photo the last twice) have been won by horses having only their second start of the campaign. Champ still has the Timeform 'p' attached to his rating, indicating he has not yet shown the limit of his ability, and he is a big player in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.