Dan Skelton is not shying away from the Irish challenge with Protektorat, who is currently rated as the leading British-trained contender in next month’s Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The seven-year-old is a general 8-1 shot for the Festival feature on March 18 after a wide-margin win in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December, with Nicky Henderson’s Chantry House the next home-trained hope at a best-priced 20-1.
Skelton has opted to take a direct route to Cheltenham with both Protektorat and Nube Negra, his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase runner, and his faith remains unshaken after another big weekend of racing at Leopardstown.
Conflated was a surprise 18-1 winner of the Irish Gold Cup, with reigning champion Minella Indo beaten six and a half lengths into second, and Skelton feels the result underlines the open nature of this year’s blue riband.
He said: “I’m very happy with where our horses are, they both head straight to Cheltenham, worked this morning and went nicely. They have got hard races coming their way – but that’s what happens in Champion Chases and Gold Cups.
“I’m very happy with our horses and that’s all we can be really.
“Does watching them in Ireland change anything? Not really. I feel it’s a very open Gold Cup. Every time a Gold Cup contender has raced in a Gold Cup trial, there’s been a different winner and Conflated chucked his hat into the ring at the weekend.
“I feel it’s a high quality Gold Cup, but quite an open one and I’m delighted to have my horse in the form that’s he in at the moment to go there.”
Chacun Pour Soi won Sunday’s Dublin Chase, but Skelton is well aware the main challenge for Nube Negra is likely to be that horse’s fellow Willie Mullins inmate Energumene and the Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin, who fought out a thrilling finish in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot last month.
He said: “Nube Negra was second in the race last year and Chacun Pour Soi has proved to be a significantly better horse on his side of the Irish Sea, so perhaps his run in last year’s Champion Chase (third) isn’t true to what he can really do.
“The two from Ascot, we’ve never faced them before and on numbers they are obviously achieving very highly. We know it’s not going to be easy, but the best we can do is have them in the best shape we can and go give it a crack.”
The Irish contingent also has a stranglehold on the JCB Triumph Hurdle betting, with Mullins’ Vauban and the Gordon Elliott-trained Pied Piper the 9-4 joint-favourites, with the latter’s stablemate Fil Dor next best on 8-1
Skelton’s Doctor Parnassus is double those odds – but after adding to an initial win at Ascot with a cosy Taunton success on Tuesday, the trainer will hope to pull off a Grade One shock.
He said: “I was very happy with how he ran, he relaxed after a mile or so, jumped very well and quickened up. He was getting a chunk off older horses that weren’t as good as him so it would have been disappointing to get beat, but at the same time he couldn’t have won much better on the day.
“This horse, I feel, is a Triumph-type of horse because he will see the trip out well, the track is no issue, he jumps nicely, he has a little bit of class – which is always important – but he will get stuck into it. I think that gives him a squeak.”
Shan Blue has been sidelined since suffering a horrible fall with Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase at his mercy in October, but he is set to return in the Ryanair Chase.
Skelton said: “He’s really good, I’m super happy with him. It was a bitter pill to swallow, what happened at Wetherby, it was very disappointing as it’s an important race and you’d love to win it.
“I’ve jumped him three times since, he’s worked beautifully, we know we can have him well fresh, so he will go straight to the Ryanair.”
Langer Dan was denied a £50,000 bonus at last year’s Festival as he found only Galopin Des Champs too good in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle, with that rival a hot favourite for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase after an impressive Grade One win at Leopardstown.
Skelton’s runner had previously won the Imperial Cup to set up a bonus bid and that Sandown race is again a possibility on the way back to the Festival.
“How did we run into him (Galopin Des Champs) in a handicap? It was remarkable really,” said Skelton.
“Langer Dan is in good form, we didn’t do anything in the autumn with him, he’s got going now and he’s going to run at Taunton on February 22. Then he will be strongly considered for the Imperial Cup and then the conditional jockeys’ race again.
“We may not go to the Imperial Cup, I’ll have to talk to Colm (Donlon, owner) and see what we fancy at the time. I haven’t spoken to Colm to see if we’ll definitely give him an entry in the Coral Cup, but he is basically aiming for the conditional jockeys’ race.”