The 2021-22 jumps season – in a sort of foreplay since the end of April – began on Friday with three days’ intense action at Cheltenham, writes Tony Stafford.
The top five protagonists for the jump trainers’ championship, always supposing that Messrs Mullins, Elliott and De Bromhead do not intrude on a private domestic issue, have positioned themselves nicely for imminent take-off.
At this stage Fergal O’Brien leads the way with 72 wins and £622,548. Paul Nicholls is second on £561,628 from 60 winners.
Dan Skelton, boosted by the weekend, is on £531,752 from a modest 39 wins to date; Donald McCain has £466,295 from 65 and Nicky Henderson, well up to scratch with 50 wins, is lagging a little with £397,633 in prizes.
A couple of seasons ago, Dan and Harry Skelton, emboldened by the lavish support of their father Nick, Olympic show jumping gold medallist and icon of his primary sport for the best part of half a century, would have been the numerical summer pacesetters in the title race.
The trio knew that having a base in Warwickshire worthy of housing the best of bloodstock, would need a trigger to attract owners in a sport where they were accustomed to turning to Nicky Henderson or Paul Nicholls if they wanted their horses trained in the UK. The Skeltons needed numbers and the summer, with the best horses out at grass, was the time to put them on the board.
Even some of those two perennial champions’ owners had already gravitated to the better prizemoney and overwhelming superiority, talent- and numerical-wise of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott over in Ireland. It appears that the latter’s gauche blunder in being seen grinning and brandishing his phone to the camera astride a fallen horse on his gallops has been forgiven if not forgotten. Memories are long – practicalities are instantaneous.
The Skelton team has now clearly made it to the big league as their principal five challengers over the weekend emphasised. Meanwhile the mid-summer void has been comfortably filled by Fergal O’Brien, formerly assistant to Nigel Twiston-Davies and more recently a tenant of his.
The building of a new yard a few miles away enabled the breakaway from Twiston-Davies and was the catalyst for a major step forward last season when he broke 100 winners for the first time.
After two 60’s in a row, the next two campaigns realised 49 and 63 before 104 at 18% and £796k prizemoney in 2020-21.
Such has been the forward momentum that as we enter winter, O’Brien leads both winner and money categories. That reflects a 60k cushion, but Nicholls, Skelton and Henderson all have more obvious candidates for the very big pots which always define the season’s champions.
Fergal’s stable strength has been nicely augmented by the addition of around 60 horses that the BHA’s favoured barrister, Graeme McPherson QC, has bequeathed (not exactly, but you know what I mean!) to them. McPherson was more the money man than the day-to-day trainer, and graceful withdrawal from the licensee position in favour of giving it official satellite yard status is bound to have beneficial results.
Already several former McPherson horses have shown improved form since the merger and if Fergal intends maintaining his fast pace – 11 wins in the last fortnight – he needs the extra ammunition.
He stepped in with the Listed bumper winner Bonttay on the Saturday of the meeting and as she and stable-companion Leading Theatre led a big field up the hill you could imagine both being high-class jumpers further down the line, an opinion the trainer upheld with a snatched comment: “two lovely fillies” as he walked by. The stable seems to have a bigger proportion of fillies than any of their main rivals, but that merely confirms assistant and partner Sally Randell’s assertion that “they are cheaper to buy”.
Success attracts owners, as the Skeltons illustrate, and now new owners are flocking to the softly spoken Fergal. They had a new owner with them at the sale after racing on Friday and he came away with lot 1, Poetic Music, a debut winner of a Market Rasen bumper for John Butler, at £60,000. “She was our number one at the sale too. I’m delighted we got her”, Sally said.
Two-horse races rarely capture the attention of the racegoer, but Friday’s two-and-a-half mile novice chase in which fencing newcomer My Drogo, a brilliant unbeaten hurdler last winter for Dan Skelton, was meeting Henry de Bromhead’s four-time chase winner Gin On Lime.
The younger Gin On Lime, a mare, had penalties which should have ensured My Drogo’s favouritism and so it proved, the home runner 4-9 with 7-4 against Gin On Lime.
Then at the second-last fence, when Skelton was manoeuvring his mount to challenge on the stands side, he hit the fence hard and could not maintain the partnership. Meanwhile on the inside, Gin On Lime also blundered but as she started to sink to the floor Rachael Blackmore did a passable impression of all those rodeo tricks she must have seen in cowboy films and simply stayed glued to the saddle.
The mare recovered her equilibrium with Blackmore soon back in charge and they set off to the final obstacle which Gin On Line crossed with no further problems. Blackmore had been the darling of the last spectator-limited Cheltenham Festival and here, with the aid of her main supporter De Bromhead, was revealing a new sphere of excellence.
If day one was a major setback for the brothers Skelton, on Saturday the wheel of fortune turned with another spectacular run by Third Time Lucki, the first domestic candidate for the Arkle Chase and a welcome one with all that talent waiting to reveal itself on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Maybe it was a job only half done, but two exaggerated celebrations of Harry Skelton as he crossed the line in front twice in succession yesterday showed how much it all means to win at the home of steeplechasing. First he was in splendid isolation on the always-talented Nube Negra in the Schloer Chase and then the long-time absentee West Cork got the better of Adagio and No Ordinary Joe after a battle up the hill in a high-standard Greatwood Hurdle.
Winning big handicap hurdles with horses after a layoff has been part of the Dan Skelton DNA for some time and West Cork was a prime candidate for such a project. Absent since his second in the Dovecote Hurdle in February last year behind Highway One O Two, he had been dropped 5lb for that Grade 2 second place from the 139 he had earned by his easy defeat of a Nicky Henderson 1/3 shot at Huntingdon.
That generosity by the handicapper was the final piece in the puzzle for the stable whereas top-weight Adagio, only a four-year-old, had been assessed to the hilt on his form of last winter. The third horse No Ordinary Joe pulled hard from the outset yet was still there with a big shout starting up the hill. If Nicky can get this unexposed type to settle better there is no limit to the potential of J P McManus’ gelding.
Nube Negra’s victory, emphatically pegging back one previous Queen Mother Chase winner in Politologue and ending the hitherto unbeaten course record of Put The Kettle On, the reigning champion but one who was never going yesterday, was deeply impressive.
It certainly was not lost on the bookmakers, who promoted him to near the top of this season’s market on the two-mile championship, nor on the younger Skelton, who not satisfied merely with standing in the saddle and pointing to the crowd as they crossed the line, then sated his elation with a rapid-fire first pump. He might find it harder to peg back Brian Hughes this winter, but as he says, he has some great horses to ride.
Some jockeys win a championship and simply want more. Harry Skelton will take another one if it comes, but he’s not going to do the running around riding out and touting for rides on other people’s horses. Why would he with animals of the ability of those Cheltenham mounts?