Maiden championship for Skelton offers promise of more to come

According to his brother, Harry Skelton was in the saddle almost as soon as he could walk as a child, so it is probably no surprise to the family that he has reached the pinnacle of the National Hunt sphere.

In an interview before this year’s Cheltenham Festival, Dan Skelton described how Harry could been seen as an 18-month old, togged up in his riding clothes, trotting round on his pony as his older brother coached him from the sidelines.

Little has changed in the intervening years as Dan has proved a goldmine for his younger brother this year, supplying the lion’s share of the wins that have seen him claim a first champion jockey title.

Dan and Harry Skelton have been a dream team this season
Dan and Harry Skelton have been a dream team this season (David Davies/PA)

With Olympic gold medal-winning showjumper Nick Skelton for a father, equestrianism is in the family’s blood – but it has been a far from meteoric rise for Harry, with hard work over the last decade and more finally paying off.

Skelton initially set out on the Flat route, working for Richard Hannon before his rising weight prompted him to switch his focus to the jumps and join Paul Nicholls – the trainer who Dan so ably assisted for nine years before setting up on his own.

He had his first ride for Nicholls aboard Micky Cole in February 2006 in an amateur event before turning pro in the 2007/8 season and riding 14 winners the following year.

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Harry Skelton hit the headlines with an Irish National victory
Harry Skelton hit the headlines with an Irish National victory (Barry Cronin/PA)

Skelton’s first big-race victory came aboard the Nicholls-trained Nozic in 2008, but the rider really fired his name into the headlines the following spring when winning the Irish National on Bob Buckler’s Niche Market.

At just 19, Skelton was thrilled to have his father on track as he became the youngest rider to win the Fairyhouse feature, and he was later gifted Niche Market on his retirement.

Skelton might well have expected his career to soar from there on, as he admits he was around the best at Ditcheat and learning plenty from then stable jockey Ruby Walsh along the way, with Nicholls even touting him as a potential future champion.

While that prediction is actually coming to fruition now, it has not been a straight line for Skelton, with the 2012/13 campaign marking a low point of eight wins from just 146 rides.

Superb Story was a landmark Festival winner for Team Skelton
Superb Story was a landmark Festival winner for Team Skelton (David Davies/PA)

Brighter days were just around the corner though, as Team Skelton launched the following term and it has been largely one-way traffic since.

Skelton notched 101 winners for the first time in the 2015/16 season, with the year really capped by a first Cheltenham Festival win for the duo via Superb Story in the County Hurdle sparking wild celebrations and what Nick Skelton hailed as the best day of his life.

The 2019 Festival offered another landmark for the Skeltons as Roksana gave them a first Grade One success in the Mares’ Hurdle and Harry ended the year as runner-up to Richard Johnson on 178 winners – quite the turnaround in just six seasons.

Skelton topped off that memorable year by marrying fellow Skelton stable rider Bridget Andrews – who he memorably cheered home in the 2018 County Hurdle – the following summer.

Skelton celebrates aboard Politologue at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival
Skelton celebrates aboard Politologue at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival (Andrew Matthews/PA)

He just failed to tip over to 100 winners in last year’s Covid-shortened season, although a Champion Chase success on Politologue for Nicholls provided plenty of satisfaction, but this year has seen him come of age.

His battle with Brian Hughes has been one of the most absorbing championships of recent years, with Dan’s firepower really coming to the fore in recent weeks with the likes of Aintree Grade One heroes Protektorat and My Drogo stepping up to the mark.

Hughes has had 200 more rides than Skelton, so it has not been a game of numbers alone, with Skelton holding his nerve to reel in and surpass the defending champion.

The retirement of Richard Johnson has really signalled the changing of the guard, and at just 31, you would have to think Skelton will be towards the top of the order for some time to come.

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