Nicky Henderson has all but ruled Shishkin out of the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup, remaining in favour of the shorter trip of the Ryanair Chase for his rejuvenated superstar.
The Seven Barrows trainer was an emotional onlooker as any doubts about the nine-year-old’s return to prominence were dispelled with a tremendous display in the Betfair Ascot Chase on Saturday, where he was trying two miles and five furlongs for the first time under rules.
The Joe Donnelly-owned gelding downed Energumene in the Clarence House Chase at the same track last term but subsequently disappointed in both the Champion Chase and this season’s Tingle Creek.
However, a couple of physical problems had come to light, being diagnosed with a rare bone condition in the wake of the Champion Chase and then a “flipped palate” delaying his move up in distance after the Tingle Creek.
Yet, just as he had done with Sprinter Sacre six years ago, Henderson brought Shishkin back from the brink and the sheer joy the handler exuded after his 16-length defeat of Pic D’Orhy said it all.
Though Shishkin was cut to as short as 8-1 for the Gold Cup by Paddy Power, Henderson feels the extended two-and-a-half-mile Ryanair Chase on March 16, for which he is 11/10 favourite with the same firm, is the only option.
“I can’t think we’re not going to go for the Ryanair, but there is no way of finding out,” said Henderson. “The way I would see it, in the perfect, perfect world – and with horses it is not easy to go very far, about 24 hours is about as far as you dare look ahead – but in the perfect world, you’d go Ryanair, then three miles at Aintree.
“Then that will tell us what to do next year. It would tell you whether to go to the Betfair Chase or King George VI Chase, or stay at two and a half (miles). At two and a half, you are a bit limited.”
Though last season’s runaway Ryanair Chase winner Allaho will miss the race with an abdominal bleed, Henderson said his absence has not swayed any decision to bypass the Gold Cup.
He added: “The Ryanair is still a very high-class race and it is not to be sniffed at.
“He’s certainly not going to come back to two (miles), so I can’t believe we need to go to three and a quarter.
“Going up in trip made an enormous difference. It was as simple as that. Maybe he would stay three and a quarter, but you have got the Ryanair available to you.
“One is aware Allaho is not there, but we won’t go there because of that. I would have thought we would still have gone that route even if he was there. It is the obvious thing to do.
“We’re delighted with him and he’s absolutely 100 per cent this morning.”