Jockey Patrick Mullins believes the Clarence House Chase at Ascot could be the perfect setting to finally discover who is king of the two-mile division.
Energumene, trained by Mullins’ father Willie, and Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin could finally meet this month as they put their unbeaten records over fences on the line.
The pair had been set to clash at the Cheltenham Festival last year but a last-minute setback saw Energumene miss the Arkle Novices’ Chase as Shishkin cruised to victory under Nico de Boinville.
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Having sidestepped a Grade One test at Leopardstown over the Christmas period, the Mullins team have confirmed Ascot as their next stop on the road to the Champion Chase in March.
As for Shishkin’s plans, Henderson remains keen to give his star another run between his Desert Orchid Chase win on December 27 and Cheltenham, but is unsure whether the Clarence House Chase on January 22 will come too soon.
Speaking to Sky Sports Racing on the Racing Debate, Mullins said: “We think Energumene is very good and were sick not to have him declared at Leopardstown.
“He’s entered at Ascot so if Shishkin goes then we might find out there who is right and who is wrong.
“Over here on the gallops there are about three horses that catch your eye every day and he is one of them. Until we see something else, we think he is as good as anything.”
Mullins warns against underestimating Al Boum Photo
Dual Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo made his usual winning return to action at Tramore, taking the Savills New Year’s Day Chase for the fourth year in a row.
In a break from his traditional route to Cheltenham, the Mullins team hope to get one more run into the 10-year-old.
The betting markets were not moved by Al Boum Photo’s Tramore victory, keeping him as a general 14/1 shot after downing stablemates Burrows Saint and Brahma Bull.
“I think every year his performance at Tramore is underrated but if you look at figures, he beat two horses rated 156 and 157, gave them 7lb and they had had a run,” Mullins said.
“He beat them easily so he has to have run to 160 if not higher. It was a very good performance.
“Last year, with Covid and everything, he didn’t have the ideal prep. Whether he’ll be able to beat the other two [Minella Indo and A Plus Tard] I don’t know but we think he’s better than the bare form last year.”
Potentially joining Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup line-up could be shock King George VI Chase winner Tornado Flyer.
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Patrick Mullins believes the King George VI Chase rather fell into the lap of Tornado Flyer and expects the surprise Boxing Day winner to head for the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March
Given a patient ride by Danny Mullins, the nine-year-old shot through the field as the main protagonists either faded out of contention or fell.
“I think the race fell into his lap a bit,” Mullins said. “Danny [Mullins] gave him a fantastic ride but it’s much easier to do that when you’re on a 28/1 shot that has been told: ‘Ride to run well’. You don’t have to cover moves or be handy. There’s no pressure.
“Had he suddenly improved beyond his old form? I don’t think so. But, he was third in the Ryanair last year and who’s to say another big race won’t fall his way in the future.
“He never really filled into the horse we hoped he might be until winning the King George.
“I’d imagine the Gold Cup is the obvious place to go now with the King George winner.”
Mullins taken aback by ‘breath-taking’ Galopin
Even by his lofty standards, Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins has enjoyed a fruitful festive period, but perhaps the most taking performance came courtesy of chase debutant Galopin Des Champs.
The six-year-old, successful at both the Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals last spring, jumped with real expertise to run out an easy winner at Leopardstown.
Asked how good Galopin Des Champs is, Mullins replied: “Breath-taking.
“Before the race, I had him in the same mould as Don Poli and Sire De Champs because he looked like a real stayer but he looks like he could be a faster horse over fences.
“He was surprisingly breath-taking, even for a horse we thought was very good.”
The pecking order of the Mullins’ Champion Bumper horses may still yet to be determined, but the Closutton trainer’s battalion is certainly taking its usual formidable shape.
Mullins has won the Cheltenham Champion Bumper a record 11 times since 1996, including the last two renewals with Ferny Hollow and Sir Gerhard.
And with four bumper winners in as many days over the Christmas period, hopes are high that at least three of them will line up in the Weatherbys-sponsored championship event at the Prestbury Park track in March.
Progression is anticipated from Facile Vega, who made a winning debut at Leopardstown on Sunday, and both Embassy Gardens and Redemption Day, who did the same on Monday and Tuesday, over the same course and distance.
“Obviously Embassy Gardens will probably need to improve, but of the three, I think he is the one who will improve the most,” said Mullins.
Redemption Day was installed as the 6/1 third-favourite for the Champion Bumper following his four-and-a-half-length triumph but arguably the most visually impressive of the Mullins yard’s bumper quartet of winners was Facile Vega, who ran out an impressive six-length winner.
The son of Walk In The Park is out of six-time Mares’ Hurdle winner Quevega and is the 4/1 second-favourite for Cheltenham, behind the Gordon Elliott-trained American Mike (11/4).
Mullins said: “Redemption Day is probably the quickest of them and Facile Vega is taller and probably has the most scope of them, so we have all different shapes and sizes.
“There are some tough decisions to make, but it is a good position to be in.”