Shishkin and Energumene – two of the most exciting horses in training – meet in the SBK Clarence House Chase at Ascot on Saturday.
Trained by Nicky Henderson, Shishkin's profile is unblemished ever since a fall on his hurdling debut at Newbury in 2019, winning twice at the Cheltenham Festival, and he retuned this season at Kempton Park over Christmas – when he left Tingle Creek winner Greaneteen trailing in his wake.
He was meant to reappear in the Tingle Creek himself and Henderson came in for plenty of criticism when he took him out of that race, believing he was not in the best of health.
Energumene is a rare case of a Willie Mullins star who came from the English point-to-point circuit, and just like Shishkin he has only met with defeat once for current connections.
That was in a Navan bumper back in 2019 when he finished third. It has been success all the way since then, with his smallest winning distance over obstacles eight and a half lengths, which was the case last time out in the Hilly Way Chase.
"We were not probably expecting to have this dust-up (with Energumene) quite so early in the year, but so be it – there we go. A ferry strike – that’s what we need! It will be interesting to say the least," said Henderson.
Should Shishkin be beaten for the first time over fences, Henderson says the pair will likely meet again in March.
"If there is anything less than five lengths in it, you are going to take each other on again at Cheltenham, as there is nothing else to do," he said.
"He did his last bit of work on Saturday and has just ticked over since.
"Thankfully it’s been relatively dry this week so the ground shouldn’t be an issue, it certainly won’t be as soft as it has been in some years for this."
Henderson will also have eyes on Haydock earlier in the afternoon as Jonbon, a full-brother to the Mullins-trained Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Arkle winner Douvan, puts his own Festival credentials on the line in the Rossington Main Novices’ Hurdle.
He will no doubt sleep a little easier if all went to plan – but were both to lose then his Cheltenham team would seem a great deal thinner.
"It’s a big weekend, because not only have we Shishkin at Ascot but also Jonbon at Haydock. But whereas Jonbon still needs to go and prove himself, Shishkin doesn’t." he said.
Team Energumene admit they deserve to be second-favourites based on what the pair have achieved to date, but hope this is the first of a series of clashes between the two.
"This is as exciting a race as there has been for a long time and like everyone, we can’t wait to find out," said assistant trainer Patrick Mullins.
"The two-mile chases are the most exciting races to ride in and to watch. Shishkin deserves to be favourite, he’s achieved more, he’s won a Supreme Novices’ and an Arkle.
"Our fella has to go and beat him, he has to step up, but he’s very unexposed and I don’t think anyone can have excuses. It should be lovely ground, it’s a very fair track and they’ve both had a run – may the best horse win."
The Mullins’ are known for their domination of the bumper scene in Ireland, yet Energumene was kept away from the major festivals in that sphere.
"He just had a little setback when he first came to us so we were minding him during his bumper season, but since he’s gone jumping he’s got so much scope that he gains ground in the air," Mullins jnr went on.
"He’s filled out and he just takes your eye every day on the gallops, he has a presence about him. Hopefully he still will have after this.
"This is round one, hopefully there’s a few more rounds to come in the future. It will be great for everyone if they both run their race."
Last year’s winner First Flow has almost been forgotten in the build up. Not by his trainer Kim Bailey, however, and he arrives at his peak having won the Peterborough Chase last time out.
"I’m very happy with First Flow. This has been his main target for this season and we’re very keen to try to retain his crown," Bailey told the race sponsors.
"He’s up there with the best horses I’ve ever trained and he’s definitely the best two-mile chaser I’ve ever had."
Asked if he feared one over the other of Shishkin and Energumene, Bailey said: "I couldn’t split the two! They’re two unbelievably good horses. It’s fantastic for racing to have such a strong field."
Dan Skelton’s Amoola Gold completes the four-runner line-up.