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Monday Musings: A Controversial End

The jumps season 2020/21 ended with controversy when the heavily-backed favourite Enrilo finished first past the post in the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown Park, but was disqualified and placed third after hanging left and hampering the challenging Kitty’s Light up the run-in, writes Tony Stafford.

Meanwhile, as newly-crowned champion Harry Skelton struggled to keep his mount straight, up the inside steamed the Alan King-trained Potterman. His spurt under Tom Cannon got him into a narrow second place just before the line and, following a lengthy stewards’ inquiry, Paul Nicholls and owners Martin Broughton and friends were left with a £52k shortfall as Enrilo was put back to third.

Nobody, least of all Alan King, believes Potterman deserved to pick up the money and it was almost in the Nureyev mould of verdict. Back in 1980 that French-trained son of Northern Dancer interfered with Posse some way from home when a hot favourite for the 2,000 Guineas, beat Known Fact by a neck, but afterwards he was disqualified and placed last by the stewards.

Posse had recovered well enough to finish third and while I’m sure owner Stavros Niarchos would not have been any less unhappy had a similar outcome to Saturday’s left Nureyev in the minor position, it had real reverberations at the time. Nureyev was due to return for the Derby but missed the race, never appeared again and was retired to stud, where he was a great success.

In those far off days I loved an ante-post punt – any punt really! – and had quite a chunk at 20/1 about Nureyev after his six-length debut victory in Paris the previous autumn. My memory in the interim had played its usual tricks, the recollection being that he’d won by far more than the actual margin. For the outrage to last well into this century as it did, he needed to have done so!

If the stewards of the BHA do not overturn the verdict at the appeal Paul Nicholls plans to lodge, it will not take too much gloss off the stellar seasons of either trainer or rider. Nicholls for now ends with 176 wins, five more than his previous best achieved in 2016/7. Skelton finished with 152, ten ahead of last year’s champion, Brian Hughes. A late flurry of winners, 17 in the final fortnight compared to five by his rival, clinched the deal with much more comfort than could ever have been predicted.

What did alter the dynamic was the readiness for Harry to accept more rides for outside stables. Of the 152 wins – not his best, he got to 178 when Richard Johnson had 201, his second double-century, but this was a delayed start due to Covid last summer – 136 were for Dan. Of the 558 mounts during the season, only 68 were for other trainers, yet in that last fortnight, six wins were hewn from 16 outside rides.

When Nick Skelton sent his two sons to learn their trade with Nicholls 15 or so years ago, he will have had lofty ambitions for them. One day, walking past Raymond Tooth’s Mayfair office, Nick bumped into the lawyer who at the time had a powerful team and indeed had already won his Champion Hurdle with Punjabi. “When are you going to send a horse for Dan to train?” asked Nick.

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It was probably a couple of years on that Notnowsam, whose trainer Noel Quinlan was about to hand in his notice, arrived in the Skelton yard. A few days later, on May Bank Holiday Monday six years ago, he duly trotted up first time in a novice handicap chase, not a bad effort for a four-year-old.

Sadly Notnowsam proved much better at finishing second than winning after that bright start and when eventually he was sent to the sales, he was bought by Micky Hammond, for whom he was little short of a disaster.

At the time I hadn’t been aware of it, but later I learned that before Dan had arranged to collect Notnowsam he called Noel Quinlan to check that he was happy for the horse to leave and join him. “That’s a gentleman!” said a delighted former trainer, after the Warwick win.

This time of year always coincides with Punchestown and the conclusion of Ireland’s jump season. For four consecutive years I made the journey to Ireland and in 2009 drove via the ferry as Punjabi attempted a third successive win at the fixture.

As a juvenile in 2007 he was third in the Triumph Hurdle behind Katchit but won the Grade 1 juvenile race at Punchestown. The next year, he was again third to Katchit, this time in the Champion Hurdle before winning the Irish Champion at Punchestown.

After his win at Cheltenham in 2009 hopes obviously were high for the three-timer, but he missed the last hurdle when narrowly ahead and, in the testing ground, just failed to hold off the stayer Solwhit who got up on the line.

As I said, I’d driven over this time, and where I had to park the car, the ground was absolutely sodden. A few days later my ankle became very swollen and I ended up spending almost a week in hospital – my first since having my tonsils removed 56 years previously.

The diagnosis was that I’d probably been bitten by insects and the poison had got into my bloodstream so badly that I needed to be on a drip for the first few days of my stay. It was so frustrating because I’d wanted Nicky Henderson to try to win the Chester Cup. Punjabi had won the only two Flat races he ever contested since joining from previous trainer, Geraldine Rees. I’ve no idea if he’d have been good enough to win it but at the time my reasoning had been, we’ve already won twice over there, whereas winning the Chester Cup would always be special for an English owner.

Nicholls and the Skeltons will both be in action at Punchestown this week, but UK-trained raiders will hardly make a ripple, certainly nothing to compare with the steamrollering domination of the Irish at Cheltenham and Aintree.

Kim Bailey runs First Flow and Skelton Nube Negra in the William Hill Champion Chase tomorrow where the Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Put The Kettle On will be missing as she tried unsuccessfully to win at Sandown on Saturday. For once the raider was blown away as Nicholls’ new star, Greaneteen, a valiant Altior, and Sceau Royal all finished ahead of the mare.

In a seven-horse race, this still means the Queen Mother Chase’s beaten favourite, Chacun Pour Soi, will be out to repair his slightly-tarnished reputation on a day that Paul Townend’s title challenge enters a crucial stage.

Passed fit to ride after his recent injury, his absence has allowed Rachael Blackmore to get to within four as she seeks the first championship. Her list of achievements is already overwhelming, but a jockeys’ title would in terms of merit be the pinnacle.  Willie Mullins isn’t making it that easy for Townend as his mount is only one of three in the race for the trainer in a field of seven and Blackmore retains the ride on her easy Ryanair Chase winner, Allaho. I reckon that horse’s stamina will have the Cheveley Park colours to the fore at the line.

The first handicap of the day, a 0-145 hurdle is a typical full field of 25 with reserves. Mullins has seven in that, including three that came over for the Festival, running respectively in the 0-155 County Hurdle, the Coral Cup and Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ race. What chance Gentleman De Mee, the beaten favourite who set up the Martin Pipe for stablemate Galopin Des Champs when making the running, will have his day in the sun tomorrow dropping back to two miles?

With 19 runners on the opening day then 42, 23, 22 and 40 entered for the rest of the week it might look a foregone conclusion that Townend will hold on. The snag with Mullins though is that there’s multiple entries in so many of these races and they are all “off for their lives” – “up to a point” as William Boot, the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious novel “Scoop” might say. And that is as it should be.

Not everyone thought that a certain race at Lingfield the other day was totally kosher. Last Wednesday, seven horses lined up for a mile and a half novice race and Polling Day, trained by John and Thady Gosden and ridden by Frankie Dettori, was the 2-9 favourite following a smooth debut win over the course a month earlier.

Also in the line-up for the Gosdens was 16-1 shot Stowell, a Nat Rothschild-owned son of Zoffany making his debut under Rab Havlin. In an almost comic-cuts exhibition, Havlin managed to get his mount to finish a close second when it looked from the sidelines that he should have won comfortably.

The post-race interview by the local stewards provided lengthy ammunition for the Racing Post comments writer who reported Havlin’s saying that Stowell is a fragile colt with a high knee action. He said John Gosden had instructed him not to use his whip but that he should be ridden to get the best possible position.

I’ve spoken to plenty of trainers and they are all adamant. One said: “If those two horses had been trained by me, I’d have been looking at a lengthy ban!” Have a look yourselves. Seriously, it can seem in racing there’s often one rule for the chosen few and another for everyone else.

New champion Harry Skelton full of praise for brother Dan’s backing

Harry Skelton has paid tribute to his brother Dan’s role in helping him to secure a first National Hunt jockeys’ championship.

All but a handful of Skelton’s 150-plus winners this year have been trained by Dan, with the duo having formed a potent partnership since striking out on their own, with the support of their Olympic gold medal-winning showjumper father Nick, nearly 10 years ago.

Skelton sealed the title after a thrilling battle with defending champion Brian Hughes, who eventually had to concede defeat on Thursday after time ran out.

“Everyone knows I ride for Dan and I don’t have too many other outside rides, but the planning and everything has been down to Dan. He knew exactly what needed to be done. Without him planning and doing all that, I wouldn’t have been in the position,” said Skelton.

Dan and Harry Skelton have formed a powerful partnership
Dan and Harry Skelton have formed a powerful partnership (David Davies/PA)

“We’re brothers and blood is thicker than water. The two of us have always done it together – that’s the way it is. He wants me to achieve and become the best I can and I want the same for him.

“Our owners have been fantastic and very loyal, I’m very grateful to everyone that has reached out and given me a chance to ride a winner for them, especially over the last eight weeks. It’s been fantastic and hopefully I’ve repaid them when they have booked me and given them a winner as well.”

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Skelton’s progress has not been a straight line with his total dwindling to just eight winners in the 2012/13 before Dan took the plunge and set up on his own, sparking a renaissance in his brother’s riding career in the process.

He explained: “When I lost my claim, that year was all right, it was the year after it just came to a bit of a halt. I rode eight winners one season and it was disappointing.

“I was at Paul Nicholls’ for nine years and I suppose as one door closes, another one opens, but luckily Dan came along at the right time and started training. It was like we were both starting again and without him, I wouldn’t be sat here in the position I’m in.

“All my eggs were in the Lodge Hill basket, dad set us up and it was down to us then to basically not mess it up.

Harry Skelton with John Hales and Politologue
Harry Skelton with John Hales and Politologue (Jacob King/PA)

“It never really crossed my mind to give up. It was a hard year, but it was a year, not four or five years. I was lucky that Dan started and if he hadn’t, who knows what might have happened.

“The year before Dan started, I was riding out for as many people as I could, six days a week, travelling up and down the country and I have so much respect for all the lads in the weighing room who do that now.”

Skelton admits the winning mentality is a family trait and his father provided him with some sage advice gleaned from his breathtaking Olympic success in 2016 as he began his title push in earnest over the last few weeks.

He said: “Obviously dad has had a massive impact on my life. He’s been there and done it. It was only a little while ago John Hales, who is a family friend (and owner), said ‘you’ve got to ask your dad what he went through in that final round at Rio and how he handled it’.

“He was just there to support me really, he didn’t add any pressure on to it. You’ve just got to do everything you would normally do, that’s what he said. Take it day be day, race by race and try not to get ahead of yourself. Every race was important and every ride was important, concentrate on that moment in time and do the best you can from one race to the next.

Harry Skelton celebrates with his Bridget
Harry Skelton celebrates with wife Bridget (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“Me and Dan have been brought up with horses, in showjumping and racing, and it was about winning. That was our life, that’s all we’ve ever known.”

Skelton’s wife Bridget Andrews is also no stranger to success, being a Cheltenham Festival-winning jockey herself, but the champion believes his title campaign has perhaps been toughest on those around him.

He said: “Bridget’s been amazing, the last three weeks have been difficult. It’s probably been harder on Bridget, my dad and Dan than it has on myself because they can only get me to the races and get me on the horse, then it’s down to me.

“When you really want something, it’s amazing what the mind can do. You do think about it all the time – it’s 24/7 with a battle like it’s been – but I was happy being there as it’s something I was trying to achieve.

“Of course (I will try to defend the title). Every day you are trying to win, not a lot is going to change because I go out every day and try my best. I’ll just give it everything and you just want to keep riding winners – that’s all you can do.”

Bob Buckler salutes new champion Harry Skelton

It was almost full circle for trainer Bob Buckler when he teamed up with newly-crowned champion jockey Harry Skelton for the first time in years in victory at Worcester on Friday.

Skelton gave typically determined ride to guide Cushuish to victory in the Fergal O’Brien Enjoys Racing At Worcester Mares’ Handicap Chase.

It brought back fond memories, for in 2009 Buckler provided a 19-year-old Skelton with a breakthrough success on Niche Market in the Irish Grand National in April 2009.

The then 3lb claimer had claimed his first big-race victory on the same horse in the Silver Cup at Ascot four months earlier.

Skelton, who was a conditional based with Paul Nicholls at that point, has gone on to reach the summit helped by his brother, Dan, at his stables near Alcester in Warwickshire.

Trainer Dan Skelton has played a big part in his brother Harry's championship season
Trainer Dan Skelton has played a big part in his brother Harry’s championship season (Mike Egerton/PA)

For Buckler he was just delighted to have Skelton riding for him again.

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“It’s lovely to have him back riding for me after all these years and coming back to normality as it was before. It’s quite sentimental,” said the Somerset handler.

“The horse he rode for me, Cushuish, is a half-sister to My Drogo, who is trained by Harry’s brother, Dan.

“She’s a bit of a madam at the start, but when she gets going she loves to bowl along up there.”

Buckler recalled how he first noticed Skelton as a promising young rider and was able use him a lot in the early days.

“He was with Paul Nicholls as a conditional. If there’s a good conditional it’s quite useful to claim,” he went on.

“Then he started to ride out for me and ride for me. It went very well.

Niche Market and Harry Skelton home in the BGC Silver Cup Handicap Chase at Ascot
Niche Market and Harry Skelton home in the BGC Silver Cup Handicap Chase at Ascot (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“He won the Silver Cup at Ascot on Niche Market and then the Irish Grand National. We went to Fairyhouse as he missed cut for the Grand National that year.”

Buckler revealed he has been keeping a keen eye on Skelton’s career through the years.

“When you’ve been involved with someone like that you naturally follow their progress,” he said.

“He rides incredibly well and he’s totally and utterly dedicated. The whole team is.”

Halfway through the season Buckler felt Skelton had a good chance of winning the title.

“It’s absolutely brilliant for him. I thought halfway through the season he must have a fair chance because they have plenty of ammunition,” he added.

“He wouldn’t have done it without his brother. They are a brilliant combination – the attention to detail is incredible and they have an amazing set up.

“Harry’s done it well and Dan’s got the horses, which is brilliant for all of them.”

Harry Skelton seals champion jumps jockey crown

Harry Skelton will officially be crowned champion jump jockey at Sandown on Saturday after the clock ran out on Brian Hughes at Perth.

Defending champion Hughes started the day 10 winners behind Skelton, who was in action at Exeter’s evening fixture.

Hughes had seven booked rides in Scotland, but after managing only one winner it became numerically impossible for him to catch Skelton.

The duo have been locked in an enthralling battle for the jockeys’ title, with Skelton reeling in early leader Hughes in the last few weeks before seizing the advantage at Southwell on April 13.

The champion-elect chalked up his 150th winner as part of a double at Ludlow on Wednesday – and with only Hughes only having six rides on Friday and one on Saturday, he cannot make up the lost ground.

Harry Skelton riding Shannon Bridge to win at Ascot
Harry Skelton riding Shannon Bridge to win at Ascot (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

All but a handful of Skelton’s winning mounts have been trained by his brother Dan, and the rider pinpointed the team’s victory with Shannon Bridge in a handicap hurdle at Ascot on February 20 as the moment he realised he could be in with a title shot.

He said: “I knew the horses were in good form, I knew I had the ammunition to do it. I can’t thank all the staff at Lodge Hill (Skelton’s yard) enough.

“Shannon Bridge was the turning point when I knew we had some fresh horses to go at, that is a big plus, horses that hadn’t been racing over the winter and I knew Dan’s planning.

“I know what he’s capable of, when he’s got something in his mind, you’d be doing well to get it out of his head.

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“Once I had a sniff of something, I’m a competitor and I was willing to give it my all. Shannon Bridge was the point when I knew I was close enough that it was possible.”

Dan and Harry Skelton are a formidable team
Dan and Harry Skelton are a formidable team (David Davies/PA)

Skelton was eager to pay tribute to all involved at the Alcester yard, including assistant trainer Tom Messenger who has done plenty of driving for the rider around the country in his search for winners.

He said: “I hope the people who have helped me get here will realise it might be my name there, but it’s a part of them as well.

“All the staff at Lodge Hill, I hope they can get a kick out of it and realise it is down to them.

“Tom Messenger has been great the whole way through. Quite often he’s the one to deal with me when we get back in the car when things haven’t gone to plan. He’s the first one to hear about it, but he’d always put me right and we’d move on to the next thing.”

Skelton also hailed former jockey Ian Popham, who is now his agent.

Speaking on a call hosted by Great British Racing, he added: “Ian has been amazing. he’s my best friend and grafted hard over the last eight to 12 weeks, he’s done all he can to try to get me as many good rides and winners as he can. I think this is a testament to him as well – I think that stands well for his career. I’m very grateful for what he’s done.”

Brian Hughes has pushed Harry Skelton all the way
Brian Hughes has pushed Harry Skelton all the way (Steve Davies/PA)

Hughes has had over 200 mores rides than Skelton through the season, which got off to a late start on July 1 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Skelton admits the rivals do not meet all that often, but he paid tribute to Hughes’ dedication, hailing him as a “fierce competitor” as well as a champion.

He said: “Brian is up in the north, I’m down here in the south so we don’t cross all that much.

“Brian is a fierce competitor, he is a winner and he is a champion – no one can ever take that away from him. I have the utmost respect for him.

“He’s had over 200 more rides than me – that takes an awful lot of drive, a lot of dedication to do what he does. I take my hat off to what he does – I think I’ve been busy, but he’s had 200 more, it’s incredible really.

“At the end of the day, he is a champion and I’d like my name to be just underneath his.”

The newly-crowned champion is fully aware of his achievement, according to his brother, who has been with him every step of the way.

“It’s a lifetime ambition. Every young jockey walks into the weighing room and hopes one day to be champion jockey,” said the trainer.

“He’s done that and he’s well aware of the enormity of it. He’s very proud to have done it and I’m very proud of him.

“The people who have worked hard to get him to this point, not just this season but all throughout his career – you can’t do that without the support of a lot of different people, a lot of family, a lot of friends, owners, staff, everybody.

“He gets the trophy, but there’s a lot of people who have made that happen and he is very grateful to them all for that.

“I’m just very proud of him.”

Harry Skelton builds on title lead with Ludlow double

Harry Skelton moved into a commanding 10-winner lead in the jockeys’ title race with just three days of the season left after completing a double at Ludlow.

Skelton now leads Brian Hughes by 150 to 140, after the reigning champion drew a blank at Perth.

Tinnahalla gave Skelton a flying start when landing the odds in the opening Racing TV Novices’ Hurdle. The 1-6 favourite, trained by Olly Murphy, made all the running to beat The Wrekin by three and a quarter lengths.

“He did it nicely, he was a bit tight three out where he lost his back end, but then away he went,” said Skelton.

Tinnahalla on his way to initiating a double for Harry Skelton in the Join RacingTV Novices’ Hurdle at Ludlow
Tinnahalla on his way to initiating a double for Harry Skelton in the Join RacingTV Novices’ Hurdle at Ludlow (David Davies/PA)

“Keen horses like him prefer the jumping because it gives them a chance to have a breather.”

Skelton took time to pay tribute to amateur Lorna Brooke, who died on Sunday following a fall at Taunton earlier this month.

He said: “Lorna was a bubbly person who always had a smile on her face and she was a grafter. She would light anyone’s day up.

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“It’s devastating that she’s gone. She adored the horses and did it because she loved it. She was a true amateur.”

There was a minute’s applause in Brooke’s memory before racing so it was fitting that Garde Ville, who she partnered to victory in a point-to-point at Sandon at the beginning of the month, should win the Eddie Mapo Memorial Open Hunters’ Chase.

Immy Robinson took the ride on the 11-year-old, owned and trained by Patricia Rigby and the 9-4 shot rose to the occasion to land a poignant success.

“There were two of us riding that horse today. When he came into the home straight and we had the line of fences in front of us, I thought I’m not losing this race because he was jumping for fun,” Robinson told Racing TV.

“I just knew Lorna would be going longer and longer and she would not let those boys pass us, so I had that in my head. I didn’t look that pretty, but I was going to do it for Lorna.

Garde Ville on his way to an emotional success
Garde Ville on his way to an emotional success (David Davies/PA)

“He’s a phenomenal horse and Lorna should have been riding him today and they were a match made in heaven.

“It was an absolute privilege to be on him today. He’s a real favourite in the point-to-point scene round this area. He’s so consistent and gives his all every time.”

Hatcher (5-6 favourite), trained by Skelton’s brother Dan, gave the jockey a quick double when disposing of Solar Impulse by two and a half lengths in the Watch On Racing TV New Handicap Chase.

The winning trainer said: “He’s a remarkable horse who Pat (Betts, owner) bought as a foal. He was beaten on the all-weather on his first start but has now won 12, including five over fences.

“He doesn’t show signs of losing his pace and will keep going through the summer.”

On his brother’s title hopes, the Alcester handler said: “Until Brian needs more winners than he has rides, it isn’t officially over, but with Harry now 10 ahead it will be very hard for him.”

Another Stowaway  on his way to landing the Shukers Landrover Defender Handicap Chase at Ludlow
Another Stowaway on his way to landing the Shukers Landrover Defender Handicap Chase at Ludlow (David Davies/PA)

Another Stowaway (12-1) made most of the running to take the Shukers Landrover Defender Handicap Chase.

The Tom George-trained nine-year-old kept on gamely for Ciaran Gethings to see off Tinkers Hill Tommy and Bbold by two and a half lengths and one and a quarter lengths.

George said: “He won really nicely and I’m very happy with him. It’s taken a long time for him to slip down the handicap, but it’s nice to get him back in winning ways.

“All credit to his owners for being so patient with him. They’ve given the horse every chance. He’s had a few wind operations so I’m delighted for them.”

Nube Negra handed Punchestown assignment

Dan Skelton expects to field a smaller team than expected on the final day of the season at Sandown – with Nube Negra heading to Punchestown instead.

Skelton had made plenty of entries at the Esher track, but with the ground currently described as good, the Alcester handler is set to swerve the meeting with a few of his potential runners.

Champion Chase runner-up Nube Negra was due to be Skelton’s headline act in a rematch with his Cheltenham conqueror Put The Kettle On in the bet365 Celebration Chase, but the seven-year-old will now line up in Ireland next week instead.

“With the weather as dry as it is, we will adopt a cautious approach at Sandown,” said Skelton.

“Not That Fuisse (Josh Gifford Novices’ Handicap Chase) will be our main one and I do think he has unfinished business to attend to.

“Nube Negra will go to Punchestown and I feel he’s exceptionally good.”

Skelton still eight ahead of Hughes after title-chasing pair draw Sedgefield blank

Harry Skelton still holds an advantage of eight over title-holder Brian Hughes in the race to be champion jump jockey after both drew a blank at Sedgefield on Tuesday.

Skelton was left the more frustrated as he had four seconds from his book of rides, to stay on 148 for the season that ends on Saturday.

And he picked up a four-day ban (May 4-7) for careless riding when finishing fifth on Dubai Guest behind Millie The Minx (7-1) in the Carpet Gallop For The Professional Trainer Handicap Hurdle. Thankfully for Skelton, the upcoming suspension has no bearing on his title aspirations.

His bout of seconditis began on Costly Diamond, who led to the final fence where Valence D’Aumont (5-1) took over in the hands of Ryan Mania.

The Sue Smith-trained seven-year-old got the better of Dan Skelton’s charge to prevail by a neck in the Call carpetgallop.co.uk 01785719991 Handicap Chase.

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The winning connections denied Skelton on Ambassador as they completed a quick double with Burrows Diamond (9-4) in the Dust Free Horse Bedding Envirobed 01785719996 Handicap.

“The horse has done it really well,” Mania told Sky Sports Racing.

“I wasn’t sure how the form would hold up from her last run as she did it so easily and I wasn’t sure what was in behind me.

“But she has certainly has improved for that performance, has got her confidence and has done it really nicely.

“A strongly-run two miles is perfect and this ground has been the key to her.”

Skelton had a third successive second place when Getariver found Road Warrior (100-30 joint-favourite) too good in the Envirobed 01785719996 after he dropped his whip in the closing stages.

Rebecca Menzies’ seven-year-old kept finding for Kane Yeoman and gave the 7lb claimer a ninth career triumph.

Skelton’s forcing tactics looked like paying off on Get Sky High in the concluding bumper, but the 6-4 favourite was worn down by Martha Willow.

Jedd O’Keeffe’s four-year-old filly went on to score by five and a half lengths.

A third place was the best Hughes could muster, although he looked unlucky in the opening carpetgallop.co.uk 01785719991 maiden hurdle.

He was leading on Malpas when his mount came down at the second-last. Hughes then got a glancing blow from Miss Smartypants, who also came down at that flight, when he tried to take evasive action.

However, he was quickly on his feet and none the worse.

The race went to the Roger Fell-trained Spantik (13-2), ridden by Alain Cawley.

Skelton edges further clear of Hughes in jockeys’ championship

Harry Skelton appears almost certain to be crowned champion jockey for the first time on Saturday after extending his lead over Brian Hughes to eight with a double at Hexham on Monday.

Both Skelton and Hughes headed to Northumberland with a strong book of rides, with reigning champion Hughes in desperate need of a big day as he began the afternoon six winners behind ahead of the conclusion of the season this weekend.

However, it was Skelton who strengthened his already-considerable grip on the title race by landing the second and third races of the day, while Hughes drew a blank.

The pair fought out a thrilling finish to the Hexham Britain’s Most Scenic Racecourse ‘National Hunt’ Novices’ Hurdle, with Skelton and brother Dan teaming up with 8-11 favourite Dazzling Glory.

Hughes threw everything he had at the Donald McCain-trained Geromino after the final flight, but came off second best by a head.

Skelton and Hughes also filled the first two places in the following kingmakerracedays.co.uk Working With Susan Corbett Racing Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.

Brian Hughes faces an uphill battle to retain his crown
Brian Hughes faces an uphill battle to retain his crown (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

However, while it was not entirely plain sailing for Skelton aboard the 2-5 favourite Dragon Bones as she hung right on the approach to the final flight, she was well on top as she passed the post with just over four lengths in hand over the Hughes-ridden Little Actress.

With their respective tallies of 148 and 140 winners for the campaign, Skelton and Hughes are Sedgefield on Tuesday to continue their battle, with both riding in all seven races on the card.

There was a minute’s silence before racing and all jockeys wore black armbands as a mark of respect to amateur rider Lorna Brooke, who tragically died on Sunday after being airlifted to hospital following a fall at Taunton 10 days earlier.

Harry Skelton extends title lead with Bangor double

Harry Skelton stretched his jump jockeys’ championship lead to six ahead of Brian Hughes thanks to a double on his brother Dan’s horses at Bangor.

Dan Gun and Dog Of War struck for the Skeltons – while Hughes suffered several near misses as his title rival took his winning tally to 145.

Skelton and Hughes are set to continue trading blows throughout the last week of the season – but with just seven days to go before the finale at Sandown, it is the former who has the clear upper hand, and has shortened to 1-20 favourite with the bookmakers.

Brother Dan has nonetheless warned the title is not a done deal yet, and he is expecting more twists and turns still to come in the battle royal at Ayr, Perth, Sandown and elsewhere over the coming days.

The Warwickshire trainer told Sky Sports Racing: “The worst hope is false hope – you can’t think that it’s over, because it certainly isn’t.

“Brian Hughes is definitely going to have more than five winners between now and the end of the season.

“So it’s going to be hard. There’s no time to take your foot off the gas, no time to dwell and reflect – you’ve got to keep going forward.”

He is, however, very proud of what his brother has achieved so far.

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“It’s a great position for Harry to be in,” he added.

“Every jockey walks into the weighing room for the very first time and hopes one day they can be in a position to challenge for champion jockey – and he is in that position.

“It’s been an amazing rollercoaster, and I’ve always thought the final week will have a big say in it – and I think Perth (Wednesday to Friday) is going to have a massive, massive say.

“There’s no time to take in what’s going on. It’s all been flat out, but I hope we can look back on it all when we get to the end, and reflect positively.

“I’m proud of Harry. I drive the car a little bit – Tom Messenger does most of that – and I declare the horses.

“When it comes to being champion jockey, it’s a one-man thing. So he’s got to be proud of himself, and we’re all very proud of him.”

Skelton stretched his title advantage in the opening race, the first division of the Potter Group Handicap Hurdle.

Dan Gun provided him with his 144th winner before noon, on a card which got under way at 11.25 so it could be completed before the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh.

The 13-8 favourite was delivered from off the pace and was clear at the last, beating Hughes and Rubytwo into second by six and a half lengths.

Both jockeys were unplaced in division two, and then Hughes had to settle for second again in the Maelor Handicap Chase – leading at the last on Discko Des Plages only to be run out of it by Aidan Coleman on another of the 3-1 co-favourites, Casa Tall.

Hughes’ run of near misses continued in a groundhog scenario in the Darlands Novices’ Handicap Chase, with the extra aggravation for him this time of finishing second to Skelton again.

The championship leader arrived with a telling challenge at the last once more as Dog Of War defied a minor market drift to 3-1 to beat Hughes on 2-1 favourite Armattiekan by a length and a half.

The winning jockey said: “He did it really well, and travelled well.

“Since he only ran the other day, we hadn’t done a lot with him – maybe we should have done a bit more, because he was quite fresh.

“I’ll keep rolling, keep going.”

The Skeltons were, however, then out of luck with their last runner of the day – Interconnected in the Horseradish Maiden Hurdle.

In the absence of Hughes, the long odds-on favourite appeared to have a golden opportunity to break his duck but instead fell at the last when upsides the 28-1 winner Aviewtosea.

Both horse and jockey were unscathed.

Nietzsche continues to do Ellison proud with Ayr victory

Brian Ellison was delighted to see Nietzsche bag his biggest victory over fences to date with battling performance in the Hillhouse Quarry Handicap Chase at Ayr.

Winner of the 2018 Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham, the eight-year-old had been running consistently well in competitive handicap chases all season, most recently finishing eighth in the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Ridden by Johnny Burke, Nietzsche was a 6-1 shot for the Listed feature on the opening day of the Scottish Grand National meeting – and after taking over from Voix Du Reve on the run-in, had just enough in reserve to repel 15-8 favourite Not That Fuisse by a neck.

“He’s a star,” said Ellison.

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“He’s won four races on the Flat, he’s won a Greatwood Hurdle and was third in the Fred Winter at Cheltenham (in 2017). He probably would have won that day if he didn’t hit the front too early.

“He ran at the Festival last time and was third at Cheltenham before that. He’s a good horse.

“Johnny gave him a good ride. He wanted to get there after the last and that’s what he did.”

While out of luck with Not That Fuisse, Harry Skelton extended his lead in the race to be crowned champion jockey to four courtesy of a first- and last-race double.

The rider teamed up with brother Dan to win both the Tennent’s Lager Novices’ Hurdle with 4-9 favourite Stepney Causeway, and the Book Your Staycation At Western House Hotel Handicap Hurdle with 11-2 chance I’d Better Go Now.

Stepney Causeway was winning his fourth successive race over obstacles when scoring by 19 lengths in the opener, but could be set for a return to the Flat.

His trainer said: “He’s a remarkable horse, to be honest. He’s just improving rapidly and it was great to see him do it like that.

“On his first run for us we ran him in soft ground and right-handed and it turned out that’s everything he doesn’t want. We’ve since run him left-handed on better ground and he’s won four.

“He’ll have an entry in the Swinton Hurdle at Haydock and he’s also entered in the Chester Cup. He won’t get in the Cup, I don’t think, but he could get in the consolation race (Chester Plate).

“The horse in the last (I’d Better Go Now) is very good fresh and Harry gave him a brilliant ride.”

The brace took Harry Skelton to 143 winners for the season, with reigning champion Brian Hughes on 139 after drawing a blank.

His brother added: “Harry is four clear, but I keep saying it, it’s not enough!”

Both jockeys are in action at Bangor on Saturday before returning to Ayr for Sunday’s Coral Scottish Grand National.

McCain enthralled with Hughes’ ‘David and Goliath’ title task

Donald McCain has described this season’s neck-and-neck jockeys’ title race as a battle which has taken on “David and Goliath” proportions – with reigning champion Brian Hughes currently cast in the giant-killing role.

Hughes closed the gap behind Skelton to just two again when he and McCain’s Bannixtown Glory fought off his rival on Eglantine Du Seuil by three-quarters of a length in the Citipost Mares’ Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Cheshire trainer McCain said: “It’s good to be involved and part of it, and it’s all very civilised.”

He nonetheless senses the extra firepower available to Skelton could be key – especially with multiple champion trainer Paul Nicholls supplying an increasing number of winning opportunities in the final weeks of the season, with his stable jockey Harry Cobden out injured.

He said: “We are lucky to have some lovely horses that do the job right – but when they wheel Paul Nicholls in it is like David and Goliath.

“We remember watching (Richard) Dunwoody and Adrian Maguire in their battle that went all the way (in the 1990s) – but with this it does look as if things are falling in favour of Harry.

“Brian will probably come off the wrong end of it, but we will keep kicking.”

Of his 9-1 winner, McCain added: “This is a lovely tough little filly, but I was a bit surprised turning in that there was nothing going behind her.

Hughes said: “She was a Listed winner over three miles at Kempton Park. She stays well, but was getting a bit lonely up the straight.

“It’s good to have another winner here. I won’t give up, and will keep chipping away.”

Coral trimmed Hughes to 5-2 (from 3-1) for championship, and eased Skelton to 1-4 (from 1-5).

“Although Harry Skelton remains a hot favourite to win a first NH jockeys’ title, Brian Hughes has closed the gap with a winner at Cheltenham, and the battle now heads to Ayr, familiar turf for the reigning champion,” said Coral’s David Stevens.

Harry Skelton continues to gather title momentum

Harry Skelton drew stumps with a three-winner advantage over Brian Hughes in their electric title-race battle after both enjoyed victories at Cheltenham on Wednesday.

Skelton teamed up with brother Dan for the victories of Faivoir and Proschema, while reigning champion Hughes posted a single success on Domaine De L’Isle.

While Skelton can rely on the full support of his sibling to provide his mounts in the remaining nine days, Hughes will cast his net far and wide, as he did for his latest scorer, who is trained near Swindon by Sean Curran.

Skelton said: “Harry is three clear, but the worst hope is false hope, and there’s no point thinking you have won.

Dan and Harry Skelton are enjoying an excellent run of form
Dan and Harry Skelton are enjoying an excellent run of form (David Davies/PA)

“Yesterday was a big day for Harry (rode three winners at Southwell), especially after we drew a blank on Monday, when I thought we had some serious chances.

“But Harry will have a ride in every race from now until the end of the season. While it’s no big deal for Harry to have a double at Stratford or Warwick, Brian is used to riding six or seven every day, and he and his team will get winners.”

The Skelton team first struck gold with Faivoir (4-6 favourite), who registered his fifth victory of the campaign in the Join Racing TV Now Novices’ Hurdle.

“This horse has been on the go since the first Cheltenham meeting in October and was left in front a long way out, which made it more difficult,” said his trainer.

“I had it in mind to go chasing with him straight away, but now we just might have a rethink.

“We would have gone straight in over two and a half miles, but the way he races he is going to be versatile distance-wise.”

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Little over an hour late the Skeltons doubled up with Proschema in the Kingston Stud Handicap Hurdle.

The 7-2 joint-favourite powered to the front approaching the final flight and pulled six and a half lengths clear of Winds Of Fire.

Skelton added: “The ground was way too soft for him when he ran in the Greatwood Hurdle here in November.

“Today was the first time we’d stretched him out in trip, and it’s all come together, although it’s taken a while for it to happen.

“The ground is vitally important and we will now go for a race over two miles and six furlongs at Haydock on Swinton Hurdle day.”

Hughes might have had luck on his side on Domaine De L’Isle in the Weatherite Handicap Chase, as The Mighty Don was showing no signs of stopping when hitting the second-last fence.

That error caused jockey James Davies to defy gravity by toppling onto Sam Twiston-Davies on Coo Star Sivola, who courteously helped him remain the plate.

As the Sean Curran-trained Domaine De L’Isle went on to score by a length and a half, Davies managed to complete the course on The Mighty Don, but in fifth place.

Hughes, conceding the emphasis was with Skelton, said: “James’ horse drifted onto my path and then back into Sam, who saved the day.

“I rode this horse two years ago at Newcastle and won on him at Ascot. He then lost his form, but Sean’s got him back with a wind job.”

On the title race, he added: “Winners round here are hard to find for northern jockeys.

“The advantage is with Harry, but it’s not over yet.”

Manofthemountain (right) in winning action at Bangor
Manofthemountain (right) in winning action at Bangor (David Davies/PA)

Manofthemountain is a name to conjure with through the summer and next autumn following his smooth-as-silk delivery in the Ballymore Silver Trophy Limited Handicap Chase.

The Emma Lavelle-trained gelding travelled like a dream for Tom Bellamy and readily put the race to bed between the final two fences, scoring by four and a half lengths and a length and a half from Magic Saint and Romain De Senam.

Sporting the Limato colours of Paul Jacobs, the 8-1 winner could have the Paddy Power Gold Cup back here in November as a major objective.

Lavelle explained: “He’d had a break going into his previous race at Kempton and just took a blow at the second-last. The ground is probably the key to him, and I’m happy that we’ve found a distance (two and a half miles) where he should be.

“Paul is one of racing’s greatest enthusiasts and likes to plot a route. The Summer Plate at Market Rasen is an option, but the big target is to come back here in the autumn (for the Paddy Power).”

Oliver Sherwood was among the winners
Oliver Sherwood was among the winners (Simon Cooper/PA)

Oliver Sherwood attributed the addition of blinkers to Jersey Bean’s game front-running success under Brendan Powell in the Arkells Brewery Nicholson Holman Novices’ Handicap Chase.

After the 4-1 chance scored by six and a half lengths from Accordingtogino, Sherwood said: “He loved that ground but will now have a holiday.

“I’ve got to thank Henrietta Knight because his jumping was average and after a week’s school with her she suggested blinkers.

“He will get further, and we should have some fun with him next year.”

Local trainer Fergal O’Brien got to within two of the century mark for the season, while conditional Liam Harrison had his claim cut to 5lb courtesy of Ask Dillon’s triumph in the Jockey Club Cheltenham And SW Syndicate Handicap Hurdle.

Harrison said: “A few of them going a good gallop suited us, and my horse travelled on that decent ground. He’s done plenty of schooling over fences, which is the direction he’ll be heading next season.”

The Nicky Henderson-trained Hooper successfully stepped into handicap company to take the Cheltenham Pony Racing Authority Graduates Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle under Ben Ffrench Davis.

Harry Skelton seizes jockeys’ title lead with Southwell treble

Harry Skelton’s title hopes were boosted by a Southwell treble that left him two wins ahead of Brian Hughes in the jump jockeys’ championship.

Skelton was trailing his rival by one ahead of the card, but his full book of rides produced three victories while Hughes drew a blank.

Fidelio Vallis took the opening contest for Skelton and Paul Nicholls, drawing 11 lengths clear of his nearest challenger to justify a starting price of 30-100.

The second leg of Skelton’s treble was then provided by Caroline Bailey’s Just A Deal, who was a runaway winner of the second division of the Join Southwell Golf Club Handicap Hurdle after finishing second in a similar contest last time out.

The six-year-old started as 15-8 favourite and was unchallenged when cruising to a 19-length victory – providing Skelton with his 138th success of the season.

“He’s done really well,” Skelton told Sky Sports Racing.

“The last day we just bumped into one. I rode him with a bit more room today, he jumped well and stayed on really well.

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“Caroline said ‘don’t be afraid to just get him rolling, because all he does is gallop’.

“He’s fairly inexperienced, but he’s going the right way.”

Skelton and Bailey teamed up again to take the last the race on the card as Begin The Luck obliged at 5-1 and left the jockey holding a narrow lead with 11 days of the season to go.

“The support I’m getting is fantastic,” he said.

“I’m very grateful to everyone who has chipped in to help me get this far, hopefully now we can just keep pushing.

“It’s a long way to go and a lot of things can happen, but I’ve got good people around me.”

Skelton is the 1-5 favourite with both Coral and Ladbrokes to be crowned top jockey.

Elsewhere on the card, the first division of the Join Southwell Golf Club Handicap Hurdle went the way of Go Chique for Nicky Henderson and Nico de Boinville, with the five-year-old mare passing the post three and three-quarter lengths ahead of her nearest rival to land a 15-2 success.

“She was really good,” De Boinville said.

“She won her bumper here and she’s been progressing nicely. She really appreciates top of the ground and a step up to three miles helped as well.”

William Of Orange then claimed his 10th career success when winning the On Track Off Course: racingwelfare.co.uk/podcast Handicap Chase for conditional jockey Joe Williamson and trainer Mark Walford.

The 10-year-old was triumphant at Catterick in March under the same rider and seemed to bounce back from his subsequent well-beaten effort at Sedgefield to prevail again at 15-2.

“He’s class really, he’s old enough now and he knows the ropes,” Williamson said.

“Everything possibly just happened a bit quick the last day at Sedgefield and he just got caught a bit off his speed, but there was a bit more give in the ground today which suited him and he’s done it nicely again.

“It’s great to get another winner for Mark Walford, who’s given me plenty of support this season.”

The Donate To Racing Welfare Online Maiden Hurdle then went the way of Paul Webbers Pawpaw, who was steered to a four-and-three-quarter-length success at 17-2 by Ciaran Gethings.

“He gave me a great feel, I spoke to Richie (McLernon, who rode last time) on the way here and he filled me full of confidence,” Gethings said.

“It was very smooth, really, he jumped and travelled well.”

My Drogo stars in Mersey Novices’ Hurdle

My Drogo took his winning run to four with a most convincing performance in the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree.

Connections of the Dan Skelton-trained six-year-old decided to miss Cheltenham and it proved a wise move, with My Drogo powering home under Harry Skelton.

Pulling away in the closing stages, the 5-4 favourite crossed the line nine and a half lengths clear of Minella Drama, ridden by Skelton’s title rival Brian Hughes. Guard Your Dreams was half a length away in third. The first three were well ahead of Ballyadam in fourth.

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My Drogo was held up towards the rear in the early stages as Llandinabo Lad made the running from Striking A Pose.

There was drama at the fourth-last flight, just as the race was warming up, with Lucky One and Striking A Pose both coming down.

Skelton managed to miss all that as he started to ask My Drogo for an effort – and it was plain sailing from there as the son of Milan opened his Grade One account in some style.

Both Harry Cobden and Jonjo O’Neill junior were thankfully on their feet after the spill, but Cobden was subsequently stood down for the day, meaning he missed the ride on Give Me A Copper in the Grand National.

Of the exciting winner, Dan Skelton said: “It’s a little bit of a relief. I felt coming here it was nearly his race to lose given the prep he’d had, missing Cheltenham – it’s such an advantage here.

Harry Skelton celebrates with My Drogo
Harry Skelton celebrates with My Drogo (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“We’d always planned to come straight here. To give away a penalty at Kelso, and that form has stood up, gave an indication of what was possible.

“It’s very exciting to be involved with a horse like him, he’s got it all. The plan was always to go chasing next year, despite the lure of better hurdles. Given his breeding, size and the way he jumps it’s now or never if we want to make him a top-class chaser.

“For a moment today I was worried we’d run him in the wrong race given how well he was going, but I always felt he’d get two and a half miles.

“We want to make him a staying chaser – next year he’ll start over shorter, but ultimately he’ll be a staying chaser.”

He added: “He’s going 100 per cent over fences. We’ll start him off over two miles in the autumn somewhere and build up in trip.

“I don’t think we’ll go further than two and a half miles next year. Then ultimately plot a career this time next year for him because his novice chase year is important. We’ve got to get through that prosperously and then look at the future.

“He’s a very exciting horse.”

Protektorat strikes early at Aintree for Skelton

Protektorat gave title-chasing jockey Harry Skelton a flying start to the three-day Grand National meeting by winning the Grade One SSS Super Alloys Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree.

Skelton delivered the six-year-old, trained by his brother Dan, with a well-timed challenge to lead on the run-in and land the spoils from The Shunter – with Hitman a close third.

Hitman was always prominent, with Fusil Raffles making the running until he was pulled up after making a bad mistake down the far side.

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His exit left Hitman in front. But when it came to the business end of the two-and-a-half mile contest, he was strongly challenged first by The Shunter and then by Protektorat (17-2). The latter went on to win by three and three-quarter lengths.

The winning rider said: “He was very good today. It’s a great way to start the meeting.

“Dan has just said he’s never thought about a horse as much as he has about Protektorat this year. He has a hell of a lot of ability, but hasn’t been the easiest with his mind and wind issues.

“The last day at Kelso, it just didn’t happen for him, but he’s undergone a wind operation since then and has come right today.”

His delighted trainer added: “That was absolutely brilliant. Harry gave him a great ride.

“I didn’t expect that to happen. I said to the owners, who also had Hitman in the race, that today was a short-term plan to get a long-term result next year.

Sir Alex Ferguson watches on as Protektorat takes the spoils at Aintree
Sir Alex Ferguson watches on as Protektorat takes the spoils at Aintree (Tim Goode/PA)

“I thought he’d run creditably, but I didn’t expect him to win. It’s a long way back from Kelso, where he was beaten after the second jump – he was jumping right-handed and didn’t want to be there.

“We mixed things up today – taking the hood off, putting the tongue-tie on and redoing his palate.

“That’s him done for the season now. I was thinking of starting him off back here in the Old Roan, but if the ground is right, maybe we’ll go straight to Wetherby for the Charlie Hall.”

Protektorat is part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, and Harry Skelton said: “It’s brilliant to have owners back. They’ve been so patient through this difficult period, but they’ve stuck by us and hopefully they’re here to stay now.”