Shishkin has been unshackled and is ready to make his mark in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup, with Nicky Henderson having no fears about either the stamina-sapping trip or tackling the might of defending champion Galopin Des Champs.

Henderson has come to the defence of his blue-riband contender, who he believes has been treated like a “criminal let out of prison” at times over the course of the current season.

However, despite failing to start at Ascot and cruelly unseating Nico de Boinville with the King George at his mercy, he heads to Prestbury Park as Britain’s leading hope of Gold Cup glory and with a fine chance of handing the master of Seven Barrows his third success in the highlight of the meeting.

Criminal treatment

“It’s funny how going into Newbury the other day he was treated like a criminal who was let out of prison,” said Henderson.

“People were saying if he doesn’t turn up today, where is he? He did nothing wrong and the King George wasn’t his fault. He didn’t fall, he just knocked his leg and anyone can do that, it’s just pure bad luck.

“I’ve got to say Ascot was his fault and he was a naughty boy, but that doesn’t make him a criminal and that’s what it felt like heading into Newbury.”

Shishkin produced a foot-perfect performance in Newbury’s Denman Chase and having navigated that Gold Cup prep with flying colours, it is full steam ahead to the Cotswolds.

He has also resisted the temptation to repeat his Ascot misdemeanours at both Kempton and Newbury, with the master of Seven Barrows confident there will be zero issues at the start of the Festival’s feature contest.

“If he turns round, he will always go left and at Cheltenham if he does that, there is nowhere to go,” continued Henderson.

“We had to be mindful at Kempton he could and Newbury he was no bother, he just walked straight in.”

Cheekpieces are unlikely

Many questioned whether the application of first-time cheekpieces played a part in Shishkin’s refusal to start on his seasonal return at Ascot and although the thought of reapplying the headgear for the 10-year-old’s Gold Cup tilt has crossed Henderson’s mind, he reveals it was Ruby Walsh who first put the idea into his head.

“I won’t say I haven’t thought about cheekpieces and we’ve thought about it since Newbury, but I would say it is very unlikely. I can’t see us doing it,” added Henderson.

“It had nothing to do with why he didn’t start at Ascot, despite what may have been written.

“He races a little bit behind the bridle sometimes and Ruby was at me the whole time that I had to put cheekpieces on this horse. He was telling me the whole time and I did what Ruby told me to do and look where it got us!”

If the Festival’s most successful rider was playing the role of mole in the camp for the Festival’s most successful trainer Willie Mullins, then Henderson is unperturbed.

The Lambourn handler recently went on a scouting mission to the Dublin Racing Festival to watch the defending Gold Cup champion in the flesh and although suitably impressed by what he witnessed, he is willing to concentrate solely on his own horse in the build-up to Friday, March 15.

Henderson said: “Galopin Des Champs is very solid and sometimes I don’t think he’s as flashy as some. He’s a big, fine, good-looking horse and he’s very classy. He gets the job done. There are moments (in a race) when you wonder, but he’s one of these horses.

“When Constitution Hill is doing his real thing – and I hope he will do it again – he’s commanded the performance from beginning to end really. Shishkin doesn’t do that and a lot of them don’t.

“But Galopin Des Champs has won a Gold Cup, he’s come into it via some good prep races and I think we just need to concentrate on what we’ve got, rather than anyone else.

Tactical plans

“You’ve got to have a tactical plan and going into the race we invariably will, but those often get thrown out the window after a furlong and you have to be doing something different, but we won’t be riding Shishkin any differently because of Galopin Des Champs – he’s going to do his thing and we are going to do ours.

“I’m sure Willie will have his plan and we’ll have our plan and the jockeys will probably have a completely different plan and not listen to either of us!”

Shishkin undoubtedly ticks many boxes ahead of his tilt at racing’s most treasured prize, but the former two-mile champion will have to prove he stays every inch of the lung-busting Gold Cup trip when he takes his stamina reserves past three miles for the very first time.

It is ultimately a question that will not be answered until the race itself, but Henderson is taking comfort from the mid-race move made by Shishkin’s big-race pilot De Boinville in the King George as proof the three and a quarter mile yardage will be well within his compass.

He explained: “It was interesting that if you go back to the King George, good old Frodon is bashing away at the front there and he goes a good gallop.

“I don’t think he’s the old Frodon, but Nico saw fit to actually go and push things along halfway down the back straight and often Frodon will still be in front when they are turning in.

“Nico was happy to let him rock and roll from halfway down the back and he was in command from there – he had beaten the others.”