Cheltenham tips: Ruby Walsh and Frank Hickey reveal antepost picks for Arkle Challenge Trophy

The Arkle is the second race on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival

Ruby Walsh & Frank Hickey

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Ruby Walsh and Frank Hickey have cast their eyes over this year’s Arkle Challenge Trophy ahead of the 2021 Cheltenham Festival.

Speaking on the second episode of the special Countdown To Cheltenham podcast, our main men discussed the runners who are expected to be in contention for the 2m chase.

You can listen to the full show BELOW.

Ruby Walsh

The ‘horse whisperer’ and jumping guru Yogi Briesner says that 10 per cent of horses are natural jumpers, 10 per cent will never learn to jump fences and the other 80 per cent can be taught to jump properly or on the flipside, taught to jump poorly.

Arkle winners so tend to be in the 10 per cent that are just naturals over their fences. Arkle winners tend to be the most natural jumpers of fences – they almost hurdle the larger obstacles. They shouldn’t be arching their back or spending too much time in the air.

If you look at the first thee in the market – SHISHKIN, ENERGUMENE and ALLMANKIND – they all attack their fences. Jumping fences is all about confidence and how much confidence you can instil in a horse. The height of the fence doesn’t really matter as you school horses over smaller fences at home so the extra three or four inches in height they face on a racecourse doesn’t really matter.

Shishkin Nico de Boinville Kempton December 23, 2020

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The easiest way for a horse to jump is when he meets a fence at speed on a nice stride, back from the obstacle. It’s much harder when they have to correct their stride or take a half-stride and then try to jump it. It’s teaching them to jump when they meet a fence on a half-stride that is the trick to getting their jumping right.

The Arkle Chase is basically the fences version of the Supreme Novices Hurdle and can play out a different couple of ways. At this stage, you’d say Energumene and Allmankind will guarantee a really strong pace – but that will suit Shishkin.

The fourth-last fence is a vital jump as the race is really on then from the third last all the way to the line. There’s no slowing down. Not too many Arkle winners get to make a mistake at the fourth last fence and come home as the winner.

Energumene looks likely to be Willie Mullins No. 1 hope but stablemate UNEXPECTED has an entry at the Dublin Racing Festival in early February. FRANCO DE PORT doesn’t necessarily scream Arkle winner to me – he may need further – but I could be wrong.

If former Supreme winner KLASSICAL DREAM turns up in the Arkle it will likely be on the back of just one run as he’s yet to make his debut over fences. BLACKBOW won at Navan but has disappointed since and JANADIL disappointed over 2m 4f at Christmas. Of the other Irish challengers, Gavin Cromwell’s 2020 Champion Hurdle third DARVER STAR is a 33/1 shot.

At this early stage I think Shishkin is the best horse in the race but he’s odds on and with Paddy’s non-runner money back offer I’d sooner tale a chance on another, especially as there’s still a couple of decent novices chases to be run. I’ll go with Energumene for a bit of value.

Energumene wins at Naas 2021

Frank Hickey

SHISHKIN‘s price on the day, and whether it is bigger than the current price, is dependent on a number of factors. Not least how ENERGUMENE runs at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown, assuming he runs early next month. If Energumene wins quite impressively, I can’t see any reason why they should be so far apart in the market.

We have Shishkin facing ALLMANKIND at Warwick in the Kingmaker Novices Chase in a couple of weeks. If Shishkin wins that impressively, will Allmankind skip the Arkle and go to Aintree? That’s a possibility. It’s difficult to say at this stage what price Shishkin will be.

If something went wrong for Energumene at Leopardstown and he tipped up, Shishkin could be a very short price favourite. It’s too difficult to predict the Starting Price (SP) on the day at this stage, but if Energumene wins at Leopardstown and Allmankind gives Shishkin some sort of race at Warwick, I would be surprised if the gap between them is as big as it is now.

Allmankind Harry Skelton Sandown December 5, 2020

The Arkle could easily be a five or six-runner race by post time on March 16 with just Shishkin, Energumene, Allmankind, Darver Star, Felix Desjy, Franco De Port, Klassical Dream, Unexpected, Sky Pirate and Captain Guinness. Of those 10, six are entered at Leopardstown, so if one of them was to win impressively there, you would imagine one or two others wouldn’t go to Cheltenham.

I’m not sure what the plan is with him but SKY PIRATE has been revitalised after dropping back to 2m. He’s going to be ridden cold and he is much-improved for the trip. He might run the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury in a couple of weeks time and he is very well handicapped over hurdles, so if he were to win that or run well, he might even run in the County Hurdle. He’s only rated 140 over hurdles, but if he did take his chance in the Arkle and it cuts up then you can see him hitting the frame. I just don’t think there is anything good enough to beat either Shishkin and Energumene.

If you’re looking for an each-way non-runner money back bet then Sky Pirate has potential, but I think Energumene is the bet in the race. He has been impressive and there is substance to how impressive he has been. He carried 12 st at Gowran Park and his time that day was 5:25.90 – he was just under eight seconds faster than the 153-rated Annamix, who was carrying 7lbs less.

The 125-rated Hostage To Fortune was carrying 12st in a beginners chase on the same card and he was 26 seconds slower. It was an unbelievable performance and it wasn’t Energumene made all that time up early in the race, or that the other races were run slowly. His closing sectionals were every bit as good.

It was a massive performance.

Even at Naas, he won his race in 4:17.00 carrying 11st 10lbs. Epson Du Houx won a handicap chase off a mark of 125 in 4:25.10, eight second slower carrying 11st 5lbs. There is real substance to his two wins and the gap between Energumene and Shishkin is too big.

Shishkin is odds-on and you can still back Energumene at 5/1 with non-runner money back.

Arkle Challenge Trophy bet summary – Tuesday, March 16

Ruby Walsh – Energumene

Frank Hickey – Energumene/Sky Pirate (EW)

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