SO who said January was the dullest month of the year?

It might just be when the best race of the year takes place, across both codes, in both Britain and Ireland.

Energumene and Shishkin are meeting at the peak of their powers with near identical records at a de facto neutral venue. That in itself should be celebrated before the flag drops for the SBK Clarence House Chase at 3.35.

There was a small sense of disbelief this week once confirmations came in on Tuesday and then again once declarations were published on Thursday morning. You see, we’ve been here before in racing, especially a two-mile chase division. Altior scratched before last year’s Tingle Creek, the Arkle last March when these two were meant to meet initially, and the previous season’s Champion Chase, built up as a red hot triple header but ultimately a damp squib.

You couldn’t categorically say today’s contest will be all its billed up to be either. Racing has a funny tendency to disappoint you like that.

As Morgan Friedman’s character Red famously said in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a dangerous thing my friend.”

But that doesn’t necessarily apply here. Hope of a big race ignites excitement, debate, column inches, TV cameras, gate receipts and eyes to the television. But we need to see it now, so let’s hope this contest turns out to be everything its billed up to be.

The tactical nature of the race buoys that hope that this will be a fascinating watch.

Energumene is a bulldozer. He goes at his pace in front and if you want to go with him, you better be able to keep tabs all the way. Notebook tried it in the Hilly Way and ended up beaten by 42 lengths as the Willie Mullins chaser sauntered up the run-in.

Shishkin is all sit and pounce, turn of foot, zoom zoom. How far will Nico de Boinville sit off? And will his mount be able to sustain his energy to leave enough energy for that lethal finish?

Separative narratives

And all the while this seems more than just a brilliant horse race. There are separative narratives, not least a bit of Britain v Ireland rivalry, accentuated by the walloping the former contingent received at Cheltenham last year. Shishkin was one of only five ‘home’ winners at the Festival, so he’s now something of a great white hope.

His trainer Nicky Henderson has also taken flak left, right and centre for his campaigning, missing the Tingle Creek. Could he have the last laugh today.

And what for Willie Mullins? This is his own latest great white hope for the Champion Chase, to complete the much coveted set of feature-race wins at the Festival. Given Shishkin already has two Festival wins to his name and Energumene has yet to race at Prestbury Park, there is a train of thought that if the Irish raider doesn’t win today, he faces an uphill battle in March.

The stakes are high so as Jerry Hannon once called out mid race, “Strap yourselves in.”

Haydock specialist Lord in ‘peak fitness’

A THREE-mile plus chase at Haydock Park on soft ground is perhaps one of the most gruelling tests in jumps racing but Richard Hobson’s Lord Du Mesnil loves it.

He goes for a unique four-timer in Peter Marsh Handicap Chase at the track today having already won each of Haydock Park’s four valuable staying handicap chases – the Tommy Whittle Handicap Chase (2019), The Last Fling Handicap Chase (2019) and the William Hill Grand National Trial Handicap Chase (2021).

The nine-year-old bounced back to form at Wetherby on his latest start, finishing a valiant second to Good Boy Bobby in the Grade 3 Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase on St Stephen’s Day and his trainer thinks he has him in peak fitness now.

Hobson said earlier this week: “He’s come out of his Wetherby run really well and has been given plenty of time to recover from that. His fitness has peaked, so we’re just hoping it doesn’t dry out too much really.

“It was a fantastic run there off top weight. It was a real gruelling display from him with such a big weight on his back and he was coming back again at the end.

“It would be nice to do the four-timer, I don’t think anybody has done it in its current guise. He just loves Haydock, he’s really at ease with his action there and it’s all about having one speed where he can go in his conditions and keep it up – so the track brings the best out of him.”

Lord Du Mesnil faces last year’s impressive winner Royale Pagaille, who was last seen finishing second to A Plus Tard here in the Betfair Chase. He will attempt to defy a mark of 163 today.

Elsewhere on a good Haydock card which has had its prize money boosted to £294,000 (from £250,000), Jonbon is out again in the Grade 2 Sky Bet Supreme Trial Rossington Main Novices’ Hurdle (2.25).

Two from two over hurdles, Jonbon has impressed so far, albeit in races where the early pace was unsatisfactorily slow. Given the recent exploits of Dysart Dynamo and Constitution Hill, it’s a case to over to you for the J.P. McManus’s £570,000 purchase.