Dan Skelton lowers Protektorat’s sights in a bid to get his season back on track in Saturday’s Favourite From The Sun Now Daily Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.
The eight-year-old has proved his worth at the very highest level over the past couple of seasons, most notably finishing third in the 2022 Cheltenham Gold before making a spectacular start to last season in the Betfair Chase at Haydock.
However, he subsequently failed to fire as a hot favourite in the Cotswold Chase, finished fifth on his second tilt at the Gold Cup and put up a disappointing defence of his Betfair crown last month.
As a result, Protektorat will run in a handicap for the first time in over two years this weekend and will have to concede upwards of 15lb to each of his rivals.
“It’s obviously something a little bit different, running him in a handicap with a lot of weight (12 stone),” said Skelton.
“Not many get in the handicap and I wanted to go somewhere with him before Lingfield (Fleur de Lys Chase, January 21).
“He was a close second in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham the last time he ran in a handicap, so we will give it a go.”
The next horse in the weights is the Paul Nicholls-trained Threeunderthrufive, who finished second in the Badger Beer at Wincanton on his seasonal reappearance.
Owner Max McNeill said: “We feel he’s a very good horse. He ran a great race at Wincanton, but the winner (Blackjack Magic) just kept going. That was his first run after a wind op and they always say the second run is better.
“He’s back up to 150 now and it’s a shame he’s still not going off 147 as he went up 3lb for the run at Wincanton, but that was fair.
“I do think he will run well. He ran a cracking race in the Scottish National last season (finished fourth).
“We had considered the Becher at Aintree last weekend, but that heavy ground wouldn’t have suited him and Paul also thought he didn’t want to possibly scare him over the National fences before he ran in it, because potentially you can end your National dream early.
“We thought about waiting for Ascot’s Silver Cup, but with that being two-mile-seven it might just be on the sharp side for him, so of all the big staying handicaps over Christmas, we felt this suited him best. I think he goes there with a good each-way chance.”
Irish hopes in the three-and-a-quarter-mile contest are carried by Gavin Cromwell’s Malina Girl, who bids for a second successive win in the Cotswolds having struck gold at the November meeting.
“She’s gone up a few pounds (11lb) for winning the last day, but she’s off a nice weight and Conor (Stone-Walsh) claims 5lb off as well,” said Cromwell.
“She seems in good nick and she knows how to win around the track. She took her last race well and is a hardy little mare.”
The only Graded race on Saturday’s card is the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, which has unsurprisingly attracted a number of promising staying types.
The likely favourite is Nicky Henderson’s £200,000 purchase Shanagh Bob following a dominant debut under rules at Plumpton, while Destroytheevidence brings experience to the table for Kim Bailey, having won three of his five starts over hurdles to date.
Ruth Jefferson’s Kerryhill and Cadell from Lucinda Russell’s yard are two interesting northern raiders, with the pair having finished first and second respectively in a novice hurdle at Kelso last month.
Jefferson said: “He did what he needed to do at Kelso and has come out of it well. The French Furze (at Newcastle) was abandoned and so we needed to make a new plan – and this was our new plan.
“You could bob round as an odds-on favourite in another ordinary novice and learn no more; yes, the bubble might burst on Saturday, but it might burst at some point anyway.
“I can’t see why he wouldn’t stay three miles and the ground shouldn’t be a problem.
“Most of the horses in the race have won a point-to-point and a novice hurdle. It might be our bubble that bursts, but it might be somebody else’s as well.”
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