Arkle Challenge Trophy Ante-Post Tips: Star to shine bright

Arkle Challenge Trophy Tips: Could this Irish raider be a thorn in Shishkin's side at huge odds.
Arkle Challenge Trophy Tips: Could this Irish raider be a thorn in Shishkin's side at huge odds.

Steve Chambers takes a long range look at the Arkle Challenge Trophy following the release of the entries, and he picks out his best bet for the Grade 1 novice chase at the Cheltenham Festival...

Nicky Henderson has won the Arkle with some premier novice chasers in recent seasons with Sprinter Sacre (2012), Simonsig (2013) and Altior (2017) all tasting victory in the 2m Grade 1, and the veteran handler appears to have another top-class novice chaser at Seven Barrows in the shape of Shishkin. Already an odds-on favourite for the Arkle, which takes place on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, Shishkin has made an impressive start to his novice chase career by claiming two facile wins at Kempton Park, which have earned him odds-on status in the latest betting for a race that has received 34 entries.

A classy winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at last season's Cheltenham Festival, the seven-year-old has taken to fences like a duck to water, and having won six of his career seven runs on British soil (fell at Newbury in December 2019), he has failed to be headed when completing. His two novice chase victories have been hugely impressive, as he has shown to be a very smart jumper, while his cruising speed has proved too much for his inferior rivals, and he will be the one to beat in this year's Arkle.

A 13-length victory in the Wayward Lad Novices' Chase in late December just highlighted Shishkin's class as he eased clear of Tamaroc Du Mathan. Spring-heeled at the final fence showed there was plenty more in the tank, and while the Arkle will prove to be his toughest assignment to date over the larger obstacles, he has shown he can act imperiously around the undulations of Cheltenham, and is entitled to be a very warm order for the Arkle, which is run on March 16.

However, at the prices, he's not a punting proposition just under two months from the Arkle, so while Shishkin is the most likely winner could there be some more attractive each-way value out there in a race awash with potential quality.

A man with a superior recent record than Henderson is Willie Mullins, who has saddled four of the last six winners of the Arkle,  and the Closutton-based trainer is sure to have strong representation in this year's Arkle, and his team will be spearheaded by Energumene, who was slashed in the betting following an eight-and-a-half length victory over Captain Guinness (20/1) in a Naas novice chase. 

The lightly-raced Energumene, who only had one run over hurdles before being sent chasing, quickened impressively away from Captain Guinness, and that Henry de Bromhead-trained raider has always been held in very high regard and was a runner-up in Grade 2 company over hurdles, before he blossomed on his second start over fences. Shishkin will be a much more notable rival for Energumene when they clash in the spring, but the seven-year-old Irish raider has shown a real zest for the chasing game, and is an extremely smooth jumper, which is sure to stand him in good stead. 

Some have argued that Energumene (7/1) should be a lot closer to Shishkin in the betting, but the British raider has proven Grade 1 form in the book and has shown he can perform on the biggest stage, so while Energumene has shown significant promise, he will still have to continue on a considerable upward curve, if he is to challenge the Henderson hotpot.

Cheltenham Festival Races

Dan Skelton's Allmankind is the only other single-figured priced runner in the latest Arkle betting and last year's Triumph Hurdle third has been a real flagbearer for the Skelton yard this season with his last victory coming in the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown Park, where he beat Hitman (20/1) by over two lengths. A win on his chasing debut at Warwick in November launched him into the Arkle picture, but it was his epic display of jumping at Sandown that saw him cut into around 8/1 for the Arkle.

Harry Skelton is sure to adopt the customary front-running tactics on the young pretender, and he will certainly make it a stern test for his rivals, and his jumping qualities should give him a significant advantage over some rivals, but he toiled in the closing stages of last year's Triumph Hurdle, and it could be a similar story this season, as he could well just tire as they turn for home, and he could duly set it up for a rival in the closing stages.

Franco de Port and Unexcepted could be another pair of shots fired by the Willie Mullins' gun and it's the former that makes most appeal around the 20/1 mark, as he was last seen winning the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, where he got the beat of classy hurdler Darver Star. Unbeaten over fences, Franco de Port failed to fire on his last visit to Cheltenham, when he pulled up in the Coral Cup, so will need to improve on his return, while Unexcepted has only been seen once over fences, which was a winning one, so at this stage can't be deemed a major player.

Bookmakers were quick to dismiss Darver Star's Arkle hopes in the aftermath of that Leopardstown defeat, and Gavin Cromwell's class act is as big as 40/1 to claim victory, but having finished a fine third in last season's Champion Hurdle the nine-year-old could be a lively outsider at huge prices. A facile 13-length winner on his chasing debut at Punchestown in October, he was then beaten by Felix Desjy (33/1) in a Grade 2 on his return to the track a month later, but he reversed that form in December when chasing home Franco de Port. While he will need to improve considerably to be a player in the Arkle, he could warrant notable each-way interest if the going was relatively soft at Prestbury Park, and last year's Irish Champion Hurdle runner-up has shown on his day he is a class act, and he is too big to let go in the current betting.

Of others, Sky Pirate has been touted as a potential Arkle contender after he won at Warwick impressively, but Jonjo O'Neill should opt to carry a significant weight burden in the Grand Annual for that Jackdaws Castle inmate,  while former Supreme winner Klassical Dream has been entered by Willie Mullins, but hasn't been seen since the end of 2019, so can't be backed at this stage having, and he has no chasing experience under Rules. The likes of Fusil Raffles and Ga Law are smart novices in their own right, but can often struggle at the highest level and can be ignored in a race that should see Shishkin reign supreme, but Darver Star could offer the each-way value.


Arkle Challenge Trophy, Cheltenham Festival, Tuesday 16th March - back Darver Star (each-way) at 40/1 (bet365)

Arkle Challenge Trophy
Darver Star silk

Darver Star (EW)

Cheltenham Festival Tips
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