Tag Archive for: Protektorat

Protektorat still in prime condition for Melling tilt

Dan Skelton’s Ryanair hero Protektorat has the My Pension Expert Melling Chase in his sights at Aintree.

The nine-year-old comes into the meeting off the back of a triumphant Cheltenham Festival, where he was the winner of the Ryanair Chase by a convincing four lengths.

There was subsequently some talk of him stepping back up in distance in Liverpool but, as the ground is set to be testing, connections have decided to stick at the two-and-a-half-mile trip over which he won the Manifesto Novices’ Chase on Merseyside in 2021.

Skelton said: “We decided we’d stick to two and a half on this ground. I think if the ground was really decent, we’d have made a different decision but when the ground is like this, the decision is almost made for you.

“We’ll go and give it a whirl and I’m very happy with him at home – he flew up the hill on Tuesday morning.

Harry Skelton celebrating with Protektorat after winning the Ryanair Chase
Harry Skelton celebrating with Protektorat after winning the Ryanair Chase (Adam Davy/PA)

“For some reason, he’s taking his racing better than he ever has, I don’t know whether that’s age, strength or a combination, but he’s in good form.”

Paul Nicholls has Pic D’Orhy in the race, last year’s winner and a horse enjoying a good season so far, having won twice in three runs.

He took both the 1965 Chase and the Ascot Chase either side of finishing second in the Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton in January behind Joseph O’Brien’s Banbridge.

“I’ve always believed in this horse and am very proud of what he has achieved over the last two seasons,” the trainer told Betfair.

“With a better jump at the last fence, it would have been even closer between him and Banbridge in the Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton and he was giving 3lb to the narrow winner.

Pic D’Orhy winning the race last season
Pic D’Orhy winning the race last season (Mike Egerton/PA)

“That was a career best by Pic D’Orhy, who is in top form at home and beat two smart horses at Ascot last time.

“There are some classy types in opposition again in this Grade One but he is classy, too, and I’ve kept him for this race, which he won 12 months ago. He worked impressively on Saturday.”

Nicky Henderson’s Jonbon missed his Cheltenham engagement as the stable was in ill health but he returns to action for this race for a step up in trip, having been a two-miler to date.

His most recent run came in the rerouted Clarence House Chase, held at Cheltenham as the Ascot meeting was abandoned due to frost, where he finished second to an outsider in Joe Tizzard’s Elixir De Nutz.

“The Clarence House was disappointing, he never got into a rhythm on the day to be fair. He hadn’t settled into it as one would have liked and he got untidy,” Henderson told Unibet.

Jonbon and Nico de Boinville
Jonbon and Nico de Boinville (John Walton/PA)

“Having said that, you felt he was still a little bit unlucky not to win really, but it would have been a messy performance.

“I’m looking forward to running him over two and a half (miles) for the first time because I think that really will suit him.

“He’s a horse that wants to be going forwards, and then he can really enjoy himself. He’s been in very good form and Nico (de Boinville) has been schooling him every other day and he loves it.

“I’m hopeful, everybody is happy with him. He might be better on good ground but he’s won on soft and heavy and when he’s right, I think he’s very good. I think he’s a horse the others have to beat.

“If he gets this far, how far will he get? He could just be like Shishkin. He’s proving himself at two miles but why switch, but he jumped from two to three miles in one season?”

Envoi Allen winning the Ryanair Chase in 2023
Envoi Allen winning the Ryanair Chase in 2023 (Mike Egerton/PA)

Elsewhere in the race is Envoi Allen, Henry de Bromhead’s 2023 Ryanair Chase winner who finished second in the contest this year.

Gordon Elliott will saddle Conflated, a Gigginstown House Stud-owned 10-year-old who took the third-place spot in the Ryanair and has been chosen for this contest over the Grand National.

Willie Mullins has a single runner in Easy Game, whereas Donald McCain runs last season’s Melling third in Minella Drama.

Jonbon steps up for Melling Chase challenge

Jonbon steps up to two and a half miles for the first time in Friday’s ultra-competitive My Pension Expert Melling Chase at Aintree.

Nicky Henderson’s charge has won multiple Grade Ones over the minimum trip but connections have been minded to try him over further for some time.

Having missed the Cheltenham Festival due to concerns over the form of his string, Henderson will be hoping for a better display than the one which saw him beaten at 1-4 in the rearranged Clarence House Chase when he made several jumping errors.

Taking him on are this year’s Ryanair winner Protekorat and the 2022 winner of that race Envoi Allen.

Protektorat (right) beat Envoi Allen at Cheltenham
Protektorat (right) beat Envoi Allen at Cheltenham (Adam Davy/PA)

Protekorat had spent a large part of the previous two seasons running over three miles but excelled dropped in trip last month, while Envoi Allen put up a game defence of his title in second.

Paul Nicholls won the race last year with Pic D’Orhy and the nine-year-old is back again searching for a valuable win for his handler in the race to be champion trainer.

Gordon Elliott’s Conflated also runs in this in preference to the Grand National, with Easy Game and Minella Drama completing the field.

Two smart mares, Golden Ace and Dysart Enos, will meet again in the TrustATrader Top Novices’ Hurdle.

Fergal O’Brien’s Dysart Enos came out on top when they met in a Grade Two bumper at this meeting 12 months ago but she was denied her chance to go for glory at Cheltenham due to a minor setback.

Dysart Enos was denied the chance to run at Cheltenham
Dysart Enos was denied the chance to run at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

In her absence Jeremy Scott’s Golden Ace won the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, beating some well-touted Irish contenders.

Standing in their way is Willie Mullins’ Supreme runner-up Mystical Power, the third Firefox and Ben Pauling’s promising Personal Ambition in a field of eight.

There are six in the Huyton Asphalt Franny Blennerhassett Memorial Mildmay Novices’ Chase and none can be confidently ruled out.

Cheltenham winner Inothewayurthinkin and Kim Bailey’s Chianti Classico will have plenty of supporters.

Henry de Bromhead sends over Heart Wood, Broadway Boy gets the chance to atone for missing Cheltenham, with Giovinco and Iroko not out of it either.

The Mullins-trained Dancing City and Readin Tommy Wrong, Shanagh Bob, Croke Park and The Jukebox Man, agonisingly reeled in by Stellar Story in the Albert Bartlett, are among nine in the Cavani Sartorial Menswear Sefton Novices’ Hurdle.

Fergie time comes to Cheltenham on afternoon to remember

Sir Alex Ferguson enjoyed not one but two Cheltenham Festival winners in an unforgettable afternoon on Thursday.

Alongside co-owners John Hales and Ged Mason, former Manchester United boss Ferguson was delighted to see the Paul Nicholls-trained Monmiral land the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle under Harry Cobden.

That victory was not the first time Hales and Mason have been lucky enough to encounter good fortune at the showpiece meeting – but it was a new experience for Ferguson after years of patience.

“I’ve finally had a winner here, I can’t believe it,” he said.

A big pat for Monmiral from Sir Alex Ferguson
A big pat for Monmiral from Sir Alex Ferguson (Adam Davy/PA)

“The jockey was absolutely brilliant on him. What I was thinking at the tapes was ‘what the hell is he doing at the back’, but he crept forward and judged it perfectly.

“I couldn’t understand why before he came to the last John was saying he had won, but that is experience for you. I was just saying ‘just jump the bloody last!’.

“What a jockey, he was right at the back, he’s definitely champion material.

“It has been probably 20 years that I’ve wanted to have a winner here, as when I first started I just had Flat horses and no National Hunt ones.

“I got interested in the jumps with Ged and John. It 100 per cent makes it more enjoyable having a winner with friends. Everyone looks forward to Cheltenham, while on the Flat you have the Derby. These two events are unsurpassed.

“It’s special here, it’s like the Derby or the FA Cup final and I’ve waited a while to experience this.

“A lot of people who buy horses have never had a winner, never mind here. It’s a feeling of elation.

Yes!
Yes! (Joe Giddens/PA)

“Of course it’s not the same as winning at football, that was my life, I was immersed in that, this is what I do for pleasure so it’s a different feeling. I don’t have to worry about it, I leave that to the trainer.”

The afternoon only got better as Protektorat then galloped home with the Ryanair Chase for the same owners but a different trainer-jockey combination in Dan and Harry Skelton.

After standing on the podium a second time to claim the winner’s trophy, Ferguson said: “In terms of horses it’s the best (day I’ve had), it’s fantastic. You can’t compare it with the football because it’s a different thing because of the sacrifice of football, I just enjoy this.

“I’ve waited a long time for a winner here, it’s very special.”

Protektorat takes flight for Skeltons in Ryanair

Protektorat proved dropping back in trip was no issue when producing a brilliant display to claim the Ryanair Chase for the red-hot Dan Skelton team at the Cheltenham Festival.

A Grade One winner over three miles, he was third and fifth when tried in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the past two years and connections resisted taking a third crack at the blue riband to revert to one of the day three features

There was plenty of pace on show with Stage Star and Ahoy Senor leading the field along, with Protektorat among those right on that duo’s tail in the hands of Harry Skelton.

Having travelled menacingly into contention it appeared 9-4 favourite and defending champion Envoi Allen was the one the front-runners had to worry about heading into the straight, but neither Stage Star or Protektorat were ready to give up the fight and although Stage Star faded after two out there was still plenty of fight left in Protektorat.

There was little to separate Protektorat and Henry de Bromhead’s charge jumping the final fence, but it was Protektorat’s stamina reserves which then came to the fore late in the day as the 17-2 chance stormed up the Cheltenham hill to victory.

It was Skelton’s fourth victory at this year’s Festival, and also the second in the space of 40 minutes for the collective of owners that include Sir Alex Ferguson and John Hales – whose famous yellow colours Skelton donned in the saddle.

Dan Skelton said: “We’ve been trying the Gold Cup trip because we’ve been trying to make it happen, it’s the race the owners would most like to win. We dropped him in and he finished third and we rode him more aggressively and he finished fifth.

“He wasn’t hitting the Gold Cup standard this year, so we’ve come for this and I thought Harry gave him a supreme ride. When Envoi Allen came upsides us I thought he’s danced this dance a lot of times and maybe we’re booked for second, but then going to the last I thought we’d found a bit more, maybe that’s that stamina that we’ve been filling him with for the last few years.

A triumphant Protektorat
A triumphant Protektorat (PA)

“It’s a massive family thing and the work that the staff put in is phenomenal. I don’t know what the magic dust was this week. What’s going on here is what we all try to do, it just very rarely happens.

“The Ryanair Chase is one of the biggies. Grey Dawning is a Grade One novice with a lot to look forward to and with the handicappers you’ve got to place them well, but this is one of the grails isn’t it?

“Two Grade Ones at Cheltenham on one day, it doesn’t happen.”

Richard Thompson, managing director of Cheveley Park Stud, owners of Envoi Allen, said: “That was absolutely marvellous, very enjoyable. I thought we were going to win coming to the last, but he’s run a marvellous race. We’ve won this race for the last three years, he’s won here three times himself.

“It’s just great to be in the shake-up in a race like this, but this year it was someone else’s turn. I totally believe he knows he’s back at Cheltenham and he certainly runs his best races here. We know we are back here, so why shouldn’t he?

“Rachael (Blackmore) didn’t ask for a big one at the last as I think she thought she would pick him up on the run-in but look, he’s ended up winning quite easily and wasn’t stopping so I don’t think it was down to that jump. He’s been third in a Gold Cup to A Plus Tard and won a Betfair Chase, he’s a very good horse Protektorat.

“I think there’s another big day or two but he’s is 10 so you’ve got to be realistic, there are youngsters coming through.

“It might be Punchestown or Aintree. I was thinking Punchestown, but now I’m thinking it may be Aintree.”

Ryanair or Aintree now the next target for Protektorat

Dan Skelton has all but ruled out a Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup bid with Protektorat – but he could still line up in the Ryanair Chase if showing his well-being prior to the Festival.

The nine-year-old has finished third (2022) and fifth (2023) in his two previous cracks at the blue riband but, after only finishing a well-held third in Newbury’s Denman Chase won by Shishkin, connections will now change tack and seek an alternative to the Friday feature.

One option is to drop back in distance for a Ryanair Chase renewal that has an open feel due to the absence of Willie Mullins’ dual winner Allaho.

Protektorat had no answer to Shishkin at Newbury
Protektorat had no answer to Shishkin at Newbury (Jacob King/PA)

However, Skelton is willing to let his charge provide the biggest guide as to whether an outing at Prestbury Park is on the cards, or if they will wait for the Aintree Bowl over a course and distance he has previously tasted success.

“I’ve spoken to all the owners and at the moment we are not going for a Gold Cup,” said Skelton.

“We’ve got the entry and there are no more scratching stages, so I shall leave him in until confirmations. But he isn’t going for a Gold Cup unless something ridiculous happens.

“The options are Ryanair or Aintree. He will be going to the Ryanair if he is super well and we really think it is the right thing, so we will be led by the horse.

“That race has taken a funny shape and how does he compare against the others in there? I believe Hitman is going for the race, but how short in the betting is Hitman? We will take a look at the Ryanair and if we don’t go there, then we will wait for Aintree.”

Protektorat was a Grade One winner when landing the Betfair Chase
Protektorat was a Grade One winner when landing the Betfair Chase (Nigel French/PA)

Despite seemingly giving up on Gold Cup ambitions for this year, Skelton retains plenty of faith in his star stayer, who provided him with Grade One glory when landing Haydock’s Betfair Chase in 2022.

That was the last time the gelding entered the winner’s enclosure, but he has been campaigned much more aggressively this term, with his Newbury run the fourth of his season so far – something his handler envisages paying dividends at some stage.

Skelton continued: “What you have to remember with this horse is, he is running really well, we are running him more often and he’s maintaining his form, he’s just that little nugget short of being top, top.

“A race is made up of the winner, but it is also made up of horses that push the winners and you must not lose sight of the fact he has danced a lot of big dances, he will dance a lot more to come and he will be winning some big races, there’s no doubt about that – it’s just very hard at the top level.”

Protektorat’s Cheltenham participation may still be up in the air, but one of Skelton’s string fully on course for the spring showpiece is star novice chaser Grey Dawning, who will head straight to the Cotswolds having skipped Sandown’s recent Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase.

Grey Dawning has impressed over fences
Grey Dawning has impressed over fences (Nigel French/PA)

A winner of the Grade Two Hampton Novices’ Chase last month, Skelton would like to continue plying the talented seven-year-old’s trade at three miles, with the sure-footed grey currently a best price of 5-1 for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase on the second day of the Festival.

“He will go straight to Cheltenham now and I have a slight preference for the three miler, but I have not ruled out the Turners just in case,” explained Skelton.

“The track would suit him better on the Thursday, but the distance might just be better for him on the Wednesday.

“Of those novice chasers this year, he’s our highest rated one and one of the highest rated in the UK, so we have every right to be bullish about him.”

Skelton happy to face Shishkin test with Protektorat

Dan Skelton believes there are “no negatives” as he prepares to send Protektorat into battle against Shishkin in Saturday’s Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury.

Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin will be a warm order to open his account for the campaign, having looked the likely winner of the King George VI Chase before unseating Nico de Boinville two fences from home.

However, in Protektorat he faces a high-class and race-fit rival who Skelton is confident heads into the Grade Two contest in rude health.

Dan Skelton with Protektorat
Dan Skelton with Protektorat (Jacob King/PA)

He said: “He’s in great form and we were always going for this race. Shishkin has turned up and we can’t choose our opposition, but we’ll give it a good go.

“We’re very happy with our horse and there are no negatives.”

Protektorat only ran three times last season, with a brilliant victory in the Betfair Chase followed by a fourth-placed finish in the Cotswold Chase and fifth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The nine-year-old disappointed when defending his Betfair Chase crown at Haydock in November, but bounced back when finishing third under a big weight at Cheltenham the following month before chasing home leading Gold Cup contender L’Homme Presse in the Fleur De Lys Chase at Lingfield three weeks ago.

With his charge having been beaten in the last two renewals of the blue riband at Cheltenham, Skelton is happy to campaign him a little more aggressively this term, adding: “He seems in great form and why not run him?

“You can sometimes get to the end of a horse’s career and wish you’d ran them a bit more, so we’re happy to give it a go.”

Henderson is similarly pleased with Shishkin’s preparation, as the former star two-miler looks to establish himself as a genuine Gold Cup contender.

Shishkin bids to get back on the winning trail at Newbury
Shishkin bids to get back on the winning trail at Newbury (David Davies/The Jockey Club)

“Nico rode him out on Saturday morning and schooled him Wednesday morning. He jumped five fences and there was no point in him jumping any more,” said the Seven Barrows handler.

“I do think he is in good form and he was very sharp Wednesday morning. Nico said he felt in terrific form and we’re happy on that score.

“He’s pretty versatile in terms of ground, I don’t think you would want him in very, very soft ground, but we don’t have much option. He has to go here, as there is nowhere else to go and he needs a race.”

Whether Shishkin would have held off the fast-finishing Hewick had he completed the King George course is open to question, but Henderson said: “I think he would have won. Whatever the result, it was a very good run for what was effectively his first run of the season.

“Nico, from what he told me, felt he would have won. Obviously, he didn’t see the unfolding of the race after the last like we did and the Irish horse (Hewick) came home with a right rattle down the outside.

“He should come on for that and he needs to have another run if he is to run in the Gold Cup, which we are hoping to do.

“It’s the ideal race, as Newbury is a lovely track and it’s nice and local for us.

“With Protektorat running, he will probably be guaranteed a good gallop and it will be handy just to get a lead, I suppose. He’s very happy leading and Nico was very happy to send him on in the King George, as he felt the race needed keeping honest – so he would be very happy if he did end up in front.”

Shishkin will line up with form figures of R and U, having refused to start on his seasonal reappearance at Ascot prior to his fine effort before coming to grief at Kempton on Boxing Day.

While not counting his chickens, Henderson is hopeful there will be no pre-race antics on Saturday.

He added: “He can be a character and the odd thing about him is at the beginning of the season, I suppose when he’s very fresh in that build-up period, he can be a bit of a plonker.

“When he’s stroppy, he’s stroppy, but he only really does it at the beginning and now where we are with a race under his belt, he’s no problem at all.

“I won’t say I don’t see any problems, as you always have it in the back of your mind, but he was very good at Kempton on what would be quite a tricky start for him, going away from the stables and paddock.”

Paul Nicholls has saddled a record 10 previous winners of the race, with his Gold Cup heroes See More Business (2000), Kauto Star (2007) and Denman (2008) among those on the roll of honour.

Hitman in action at Newbury
Hitman in action at Newbury (Tim Goode/PA)

This time around, the Ditcheat maestro saddles last year’s runner-up Hitman, who has finished tailed off in each of his two starts so far this term.

“He needed the run at Cheltenham last month after his latest wind op and has come on nicely for the outing,” Nicholls told Betfair.

“I’m hopeful he can pick up some place money before another crack at the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham.”

Kim Bailey’s Does He Know and the Anthony Honeyball-trained Sam Brown are the other hopefuls.

All eyes on L’Homme Presse return to the Gold Cup mix

L’Homme Presse sets out to prove he very much remains a Cheltenham Gold Cup contender when he makes his eagerly-awaited comeback in the Fitzdares Fleur De Lys Chase at Lingfield.

The feature of Lingfield’s Winter Million Festival has attracted a field of six and it is Venetia Williams’ high-class staying chaser that sets the standard, despite being off the track for over a year.

He looked booked for second in the King George VI Chase before unshipping his big-race pilot Charlie Deutsch at the last while giving chase to Bravemansgame, and before that had built up an impressive chasing CV which includes victory at the Cheltenham Festival as a novice and a mammoth effort off top-weight in Newcastle’s Rehearsal Chase.

L'Homme Presse was last seen unseating Charlie Deutsch in the 2022 King George VI Chase
L’Homme Presse was last seen unseating Charlie Deutsch in the 2022 King George VI Chase (John Walton/PA)

Following a long 13-month wait, L’Homme Presse – who is as short as 12-1 for the Gold Cup – now seeks to reaffirm his position towards the top of the staying chasing ranks, with connections optimistic of a bold bid in the two-mile-six-furlong affair.

“It’s been a long 13 months and a lot of effort has been put in to get him back,” said Andy Edwards, who owns L’Homme Presse in partnership with Peter Pink.

“This trip, for his comeback is ideal really, it’s an intermediate trip and it should suit him down to the ground.

“He doesn’t lack in pace and he certainly doesn’t lack in staying power as we saw in the Brown Advisory.

“He is ready to go, but he has had 13 months off. He’s run well fresh before, but whether he can run to the top of his form having had so long off we will find out.

“It’s no good looking at basic ratings because that is the best he has ever done and it’s unlikely he can achieve that first time out, but of course we are hopeful that he can.”

Dan and Harry Skelton with Protektorat at Skelton’s Lodge Hill stables
Dan and Harry Skelton with Protektorat at Skelton’s Lodge Hill stables (Jacob King/PA)

L’Homme Presse will be in receipt of 4lb from former Gold Cup third Protektorat, with Dan Skelton switching tactics to target this race after the nine-year-old’s failure to defend his Betfair Chase crown in November.

He has since run in handicap company at Cheltenham and his handler is confident he has his Grade One scorer in peak condition as he searches for a slice of the £165,000 prize-fund.

“He’s in good form and we were always coming here after the December race,” said Skelton.

“He’s got a job on giving weight away to a few, but it’s a race we’ve always had in mind and I’m very happy with him.

“If it’s not happening, you have got to change and we’re changing up. The trip is no issue and I’m really looking forward to running him.”

Fergal O’Brien’s Highland Hunter and Sam Thomas’ Welsh Grand National winner Iwilldoit are both 11 now and will attempt to land a blow for the veterans, while Kim Bailey won the inaugural running of this race with Two For Gold and attempts to repeat the dose with Does He Know.

The field is rounded off by Gary Moore’s Full Back, who is a long way adrift of his rivals on ratings and returns from 434 days off the track.

Protektorat seeks confidence boost in lesser company

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.”

Skelton eager to get Protektorat back on track

Dan Skelton is keen to get Protektorat back on the racecourse “relatively quickly” following his disappointing defence of the Betfair Chase at Haydock on Saturday.

The eight-year-old was a brilliant winner of the Merseyside Grade One 12 months ago, but after travelling well on the front end for a long way in his bid for back-to-back victories, he weakened out of contention before the home turn and trailed home last of four runners behind Royale Pagaille.

Skelton reported his star chaser to have emerged relatively unscathed on Sunday morning and he plans to give him another run before the end of 2023, after which a tilt at the the £165,000 Fleur de Lys Chase at Lingfield on January 21 is on the agenda.

“He’s a bit stiff, but he’s fine. We’ll get him right and go again,” said the Alcester-based trainer.

Harry Skelton celebrates winning last year's Betfair Chase on Protektorat
Harry Skelton celebrates winning last year’s Betfair Chase on Protektorat (Nigel French/PA)

“Yesterday wasn’t our day and take nothing away from the winner, it was a fabulous performance.

“We were happy with our horse going into it and I’m not making any excuses. Sometimes you get beat and you’ve just got to dust yourself down and go again.

“What I want to do is run him somewhere relatively quickly, between now and the new year, and then look at the Winter Million race for him. It’s worth an awful lot of money and will probably be run on ground that he’ll really enjoy.”

Protektorat’s options over the festive period include the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day and the Savills Chase at Leopardstown two days later, with nothing off the table at this stage.

Skelton added: “I’ve got to talk to connections first, but there’s only a handful of races that he’s eligible for, so we’ll have to consider them all.”

Protektorat primed for defence of Betfair Chase crown

Protektorat is in rude health as he builds up towards the defence of his Betfair Chase title, which trainer Dan Skelton describes as a “lifetime race”.

The first Grade One of the National Hunt season in the UK, Haydock’s feature event has a history of multiple winners, with Silviniaco Conti winning two, Cue Card and Bristol De Mai three apiece and the incomparable Kauto Star four.

Skelton was involved in those Kauto Star victories as Paul Nicholls’ assistant and winning with Protektorat 12 months ago gave him great satisfaction to get on the roll of honour in his own right.

Protektorat came up short in two subsequent runs, in the Cotswold Chase and the Gold Cup, and with that in mind, Skelton is leaving no stone unturned in ensuring he is at concert pitch for his reappearance.

“He’s in good form. We’ve managed to get him to our grass gallop this year, which is vitally important to him because we have to train him slightly different to the others, he’s not a horse we can train on the hill. He’s predominantly on the soft sand gallop,” said Skelton on a call organised by Jockey Club Racecourses.

“I wouldn’t say he’s completely unique, there’s a few we train the way we train him, but basically he puts way too much effort into the early part of his work, so you have to taper into it.

“If we worked him up our hill, he’d give us a terrible read as he’d do too much along the bottom and then feel the incline and not perform as well as those who are relaxed at the bottom.

“His health and his well-being is good, his fitness is right where we want it and it doesn’t hurt that there’s been plenty of rain all over the UK because that will suit him.”

Kauto Star was imperious in the Betfair Chase
Kauto Star was imperious in the Betfair Chase (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

Skelton has fond memories of Kauto Star’s exploits on Merseyside and feels the race is one of jumps racing’s crown jewels.

He added: “Obviously, I worked for Paul when Kauto Star was winning them. The Betfair Chase is one of the biggies of the year, up there with the King George and the Gold Cup and it was fantastic to win it last year.

“It’s one of those lifetime races and it is very hard to get a horse good enough to run in it, so when you get your chance, you’ve got to try and take it.”

Getting back to Protektorat, Skelton said: “He spends his summers with Lisa Hales (daughter of part-owner John Hales) and he does well through the summer, we then start with him in the first or second week of July.

“He’s very enthusiastic about his work – if anything, he actually gives too much and you are always trying to calm him down as he is so keen to please, which is why he’s a great horse fresh.

“Sometimes, towards the end of the season, his early exuberance, while you don’t not appreciate it, everything he puts in at the start, it has to empty somewhere. He has won a Grade One in April, though.

“A week on Saturday is the big plan. He does have a King George entry and we’ll consider all options, but the Betfair Chase is his big target pre-Christmas.

“You can’t go to the Betfair half soaked, you’ve got to be ready for it.

“I wouldn’t call it a home match for us as he’s only done it once, but he’s answered the questions before, in those conditions at that trip. By their own admission, the trainers of the likes of Shishkin and Bravemansgame are looking at the King George.

“By our own admission, our number one target is the Betfair. I’m training him for the Betfair, which is giving me confidence he’ll put up a good defence.”

While Haydock is very much the big aim, come the spring, a tilt at the Grand National has not been ruled out.

“We rode him in the Gold Cup as if he’d stay four miles and because we were so aggressive, we gave him the opportunity to weaken going to the last and that is what happened,” said Skelton.

Harry Skelton salutes the crowd winning the Betfair Chase last year
Harry Skelton salutes the crowd winning the Betfair Chase last year (Nigel French/PA)

“We half talked about a National entry last year. While it’s not headline-worthy that we’ll enter him in it, and there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge before entries are even considered, but we thought about it last year.

“By the same token, we also discussed dropping him back in trip. That is what happens when you get beat, you think of things you can do different. When you win, you just do the same thing.”

One man who has helped Skelton in the difficult discussion after a defeat is part-owner Sir Alex Ferguson.

Sir Alex Ferguson (second right) on the podium after last year's Betfair Chase
Sir Alex Ferguson (second right) on the podium after last year’s Betfair Chase (Nigel French/PA)

“First and foremost, he’s a sportsman, he knows the difference between winning and losing. He copes with losing because it used to happen to him in his professional life,” explained the trainer.

“It is comforting being around people who understand how to lose and try to get better from it. I’ve asked him questions and he’s always willing to answer. He’s an intelligent man who sees things in ways normal people don’t.

“He’s a great man to have on your side because he just gets it. No one was ever under more pressure than he was, no one ever felt worse than him after a bad result or better than him after a good result, he’s been there and done it all.

“It’s a great quality to have, being able to dust yourself down and go again.

“He’s never questioned, he would only question how we are going to do it better.”

Skelton eyeing Betfair Chase repeat with Protektorat

Dan Skelton plans to have his stable star Protektorat “properly ready” for his defence of the Betfair Chase at Haydock next month.

The eight-year-old ran out an impressive winner of the Merseyside Grade One last season and was last seen finishing fifth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, having placed third in the blue riband in 2022.

And while Skelton is not ruling out a third bid for Gold Cup glory in March, his main focus at this stage is ensuring Protektorat is fully tuned up for his comeback run on November 25.

He said: “We will be going to Haydock fresh and ready for the Betfair Chase. From what I’ve seen, he has not gone backwards in any way. The way we will have him ready for that race is that we will have him properly ready. I think it will take a good one on the day to beat him.

“He will have an entry in the King George at Kempton and we will look at that. We will have to look sensibly at the Gold Cup as we have had two goes at it and it hasn’t happened yet, but we will worry about the spring when we get to it.

“Anything is possible at this point and what happens before March will dictate whether he should be there or not.

“If all of a sudden he found 10lb of improvement then you would have to have another go at the Gold Cup, but if the opposition have perfect seasons you might think you are better doing something else. We will do what is right for the horse.”

My Drogo has not been seen in competitive action bolting up in a novice chase at Cheltenham in December 2021, having missed the entirety of last season through injury.

However, the eight-year-old is on the comeback trail, with Skelton eyeing up some major prizes.

“He is back now and I’m delighted with how he looks,” said the trainer.

“I’d like to try and start him off in the Old Roan (at Aintree). That would be the perfect scenario. It was a shame he missed last season as you don’t want to be missing one of your stars.

“Every time he has stood up over obstacles he is unbeaten. He was improving until his problems, and we would like to pick up from where he left off. If we can go to the Old Roan on really nice ground that will give him the opportunity to step forward.

“He will have an entry in the Paddy Power Gold Cup (at Cheltenham) and Richard and Lizzie Kelvin-Hughes who own him are mad keen to get him to the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day, so we are trying to work him towards that.

“He looks fantastic and is behaving beautifully. He has as much ability as any horse I’ve had, and you have to take that seriously.”

Skelton confirmed Nube Negra is likely to make his return in next month’s Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, which he won last season.

Skelton retains maximum faith in Protektorat’s Gold Cup challenge

Dan Skelton remains convinced his star staying chaser Protektorat will once again make his presence felt in next month’s Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The eight-year-old finished best of the British in the blue riband last season when third behind Henry de Bromhead’s pair of A Plus Tard and Minella Indo – and could hardly have been more impressive on his seasonal reappearance in Haydock’s Betfair Chase at Haydock.

But his Gold Cup credentials were dented on Cheltenham Trials Day in late January as he could finish only fourth as hot favourite for the Cotswold Chase, with Skelton subsequently blaming himself for leaving his charge short in the fitness department.

Bookmakers inevitably lengthened Protektorat’s Festival odds off the back of that defeat, with Betfair offering 16-1 – but speaking at a press morning at his yard on Tuesday, Skelton said anyone writing off his Gold Cup chances does so at their peril.

“I hold my hands up after Cheltenham – I didn’t have him as fit as thought he was,” he said.

“If we’d gone into that race with me saying ‘this is a prep run’, I think everyone would have come out and said it was a lovely prep run, he blew up turning in and stayed on from the back of the last.

“That wasn’t the plan. I thought and hoped he’d win and we’d go on to the Gold Cup, but that’s not how it’s worked out.

“He was third in the Gold Cup last year and is a bigger, stronger, better horse this year. I think you all saw at Haydock when he’s at his absolute best how good he can be.”

The Alcester handler is confident a leaner and meaner version of Protektorat will show up in the Cotswolds in four weeks’ time, with a racecourse gallop at Southwell pencilled in as a key part of preparation.

Dan and Harry Skelton with Protektorat
Dan and Harry Skelton with Protektorat (Jacob King/PA)

He added: “We’ve just got to knuckle down, and we have knuckled down in the couple of weeks since the Cotswold Chase, and get him like he was at Haydock.

“If he goes into the Gold Cup like he was at Haydock, I think you’ll find his run in the Cotswold Chase will be significantly behind him and I think he’s got a real good chance.

“Drying conditions are a concern, but the only thing is the longer it stays dry, the more certain it will rain! Maybe it will all rain at once.”

The hot favourite for the Gold Cup is the Willie Mullins-trained Galopin Des Champs, who proved his stamina over three miles in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown earlier in the month.

But while Skelton respects the Irish challenger, he is not one to shirk a challenge.

He said: “Obviously Galopin Des Champs is the correct favourite. He got the trip the last day, (but) there is a small question mark over whether he’ll stay three-mile-two at Cheltenham, which Willie is convinced he’ll answer positive and I’m certainly in no place to doubt the horse or the trainer!

“But what I’m getting at is Galopin Des Champs aside, it’s a very, very open Gold Cup. Everyone has had a go at beating each other and there have been different results along the line.

“Our horse is a confirmed stayer and can get round the track and on our Haydock form, we’re right up there.

“He looks absolutely magnificent in his coat and hopefully he can go two places better than last year.”

Two days prior to Protektorat’s second bid for Gold Cup glory, his stablemate Nube Negra will have a second tilt at the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Dan Skelton alongside Nube Negra
Dan Skelton alongside Nube Negra (Jacob King/PA)

The nine-year-old was beaten just half a length into second place by Put The Kettle On in the 2021 edition of the two-mile chasing championship, but was withdrawn from last season’s renewal on account of the rain-softened ground.

The Spanish-bred gelding made the most of a gilt-edged opportunity when landing Cheltenham’s Shloer Chase in November, though, and while he was no match for Editeur De Gite in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas, Skelton is hopeful Nube Negra will show his true colours next month granted normal Cheltenham conditions.

He said: “The Champion Chase looks a very open race. Everyone has beaten each other and everyone has got reasons why they got beat.

“He won the Shloer, which he should have done at 1-10, and then I think he actually ran really well at Kempton on tacky ground, which is not perfect for him.

Horses on the gallops during a visit to Dan Skelton’s yard
Horses on the gallops during a visit to Dan Skelton’s yard (Jacob King/PA)

“I’m not making an excuse – we got beaten by a horse that was clearly superior that day (Editeur Du Gite) with those tactics and has gone on to frank the form significantly in the Clarence House.

“This horse is very effective when he’s very fresh, he’s effective at Cheltenham and the better the ground the better his chance.

“It’s a very unclear picture, but we’re very happy to have our hat in the ring and I think it’s a given we can have him better than he was at Christmas when the sun’s out and the ground’s better.

“We’re pretty positive. He was second in it before and we’d love to try and go one better.”

Protektorat primed for Cheltenham clash with Noble Yeats

Dan Skelton feels the Paddy Power Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham will answer a lot of questions regarding Protektorat’s Gold Cup claims.

Hugely impressive in the Betfair Chase at Haydock on his seasonal reappearance, in which last season’s Gold Cup winner A Plus Tard disappointed, Skelton immediately nominated a trip to Prestbury Park as a prep for the Festival.

Rather than scare away the opposition this coming Saturday, though, the spate of recent abandonments and other issues mean he will face a keen test of his credentials against the likes of Grand National winner Noble Yeats, a previous King George winner in Frodon and Sounds Russian.

“I’m not saying Protektorat is an absolute certainty as if your man turns up (Noble Yeats) he is a shorter price in the Gold Cup, rightly or wrongly, whatever your opinion is. It is going to be enlightening to see them lining up against each other,” said Skelton.

“Noble Yeats was very good in the Many Clouds Chase which you would expect a Grand National winner to be able to do.

“You can’t deny Noble Yeats’ ability and stamina and I don’t think he will be inconvenienced by his lack of experience at the track. However, Protektorat has just turned into a real good stayer and that is very important around Cheltenham.”

Protektorat oozed class at Haydock and Skelton, who has his horses firing on all cylinders after a quiet Christmas, said: “I think the win at Haydock suggested that he had improved from last season which we had seen at home but he still had to confirm that on the track.

“We’ve not changed anything in his training regime just as they get that bit older and stronger you can do that bit more with them that is the truth.

“He went through the race very well and picked up very well. I was surprised how he scampered clear after the last, which I thought was very good.

“All in all it was just good to see him come out and win like that.”

Assessing his Gold Cup rivals, Skelton is well aware of the task ahead.

“I thought Bravemansgame was very good at Kempton and I think he put to bed any doubts about really seeing that trip out,” he said.

“He has now won a King George which is probably the second biggest chase on the calendar in the UK. Any doubts people could have about him have been dispelled and it enhanced him for a Gold Cup even more.

“Galopin Des Champs is yet to take race beyond an extended two-miles-five-furlongs over fences but that appears to be the only answered question about him as there is no question about his class and ability.

“The Dublin Racing Festival will tell you a little bit about what chances a lot of the Irish guys have and what form they are in.

“We also haven’t seen last year’s Gold Cup winner A Plus Tard since his no show in the Betfair Chase but you would be foolish to write him off as well.”

Monday Musings: Who’d be a handicapper?

I suppose I could mention the Bryony Frost issue and her triumphant return to race riding with a big win in the Tingle Creek on Saturday at Sandown Park, writes Tony Stafford. Certain writers thought that victory was vindication of her situation vis a vis Robbie Dunne and his alleged bullying, swearing and whatever else from last week’s enquiry.

The situation, though, was rather like a jury of 12 men and women true having not agreed a trial verdict on a Friday night then going off to watch together private videos of everything the accused had done throughout his life over the weekend before reconvening on Monday morning. Not exactly the best example of natural justice maybe but, like Hollie and Rachael, Bryony is one of the racing public’s favourites and understandably and rightly so.

Equally, I could refer to Protektorat’s arrogant dismissal of former Gold Cup winner Native River in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree the same day, and again a woman rider, Bridget Andrews, doing the steering and presenting at the fences of brother-in-law Dan Skelton’s much-improved chaser. He now faces the prospect of challenging the Irish heavyweights in the Gold Cup next March.

You have to love the way Dan never, except in the most unavoidable situations, like multiple runners at different tracks, goes outside the family. Brother and Bridget’s husband Harry might not win the title again this year – with Brian Hughes taking it so seriously he is operating twice as fast as last season’s champion. He is however playing the sensible card and helping ensure his own longevity in the saddle by keeping it in the family.

I also loved the effort of the grey mare and proud mum of a two-year-old – “I was courted by a Derby winner don’t you know!”, says Snow Leopardess as she goes on the gallops every day. “I would show you a picture but I don’t have one on me. He’s a handsome chap, by Sir Percy, and it’s his birthday soon”.

I believe the youngster is rising three but could be corrected on that. The bold-jumping grey mare conceived and foaled during the 26 months between her successful trip over to France from Charlie Longsdon’s stable in 2017 and first run back at Newbury in late 2019.

On Saturday at Aintree she treated the Grand National fences with respect but total efficiency. It would have been an awful shame if the front-running performance clear of the field for much of the three miles and two furlongs would have resulted in defeat by a nose rather than victory by that margin over Hill Sixteen.

Lots to talk about, then, but instead I’m going to harp on about the sitting duck syndrome, brought upon domestic owners and trainers by the people whose mandate is to make handicap races a level playing field.

These well-paid officials continually err in several regards. Number one, letting Irish trainers take the mickey. Take the case of a horse who had previously raced in seven maiden and novice races and a single handicap before his owner-trainer, Ronan McNally, a notorious “touch” merchant, lined him up, cherry picking a Huntingdon 0-110 yesterday against ten unsuspecting locals.

The horse, a six-year-old, to tabulate his entire Rules career, had been successively 17th of 20 beaten 53 lengths (25/1); 10th of 20 beaten 64 lengths (50/1); 8th of 15 beaten 74 lengths (150/1); 11th of 20 beaten 63 lengths (200/1); 11th of 13, beaten 19 lengths (200/1); 16th of 18, beaten 33 lengths (50/1); and 10th of 13, beaten 19 lengths (150/1).

Just to make the job look right he was sixth of 20 in his first handicap hurdle at Down Royal, starting at 8/1. You could say that the money was down and he didn’t have a great run but if it was half down then, they went the whole hog on Vee Dancer yesterday.

Choosing a conditional jockeys’ handicap hurdle and therefore able to book leading claiming rider Kevin Brogan, such was the weight of money he started an improbable 2 to 1 on. It would not be accurate to say he was always going to win as he was on and off the bridle all the way, but he won comfortably by three lengths in the end.

My complaint is that horses like that coming from another racing authority should not be allowed to run in any handicap without achieving a minimum placing: getting at least in the first four let’s say. Watch out for another three or four wins in rapid fire fashion.

He had run off 90 in that Down Royal race and our hurdles handicapper probably thought he was safe letting in him on 10lb more, but these horses have stones not pounds in hand once the hand-brake is let off.

One of the cleverest UK trainers is undoubtedly Gary Moore and I think he has even outsmarted anything he’s done previously in handicaps with his training of ex-French six-year-old Naturally High. This gelding is not only the same age as Vee Dancer but was running in a Sandown handicap hurdle on Saturday off the identical mark of 100.

He duly bolted in, dismantling some progressive young hurdlers having shot the pre-race market to pieces too. He still started odds against but when you examine his life story and the part the UK handicappers played in it, I’m sure you will see my amazement is justified.

Runner-up at Sandown was another ex-Frenchman, the Roger Teal-trained Kamaxos who was conceding him 15lb. His French Flat race mark had been 32, which equates to 70, meaning a pretty routine 45lb difference.

I mentioned Naturally High had also been trained in France, and his last four runs there in 2018 had been two victories in April in a Chantilly conditions event and a Longchamp Listed. He went up in class for his next run but finished 15th of 16 as a 16/1 shot in the Prix Du Jockey Club (French Derby), starting at much shorter odds than three of the four Aidan O’Brien candidates.

After his last run, fifth of six in a Group 2, he was allotted a mark of 47, which he still holds and which translates to 103. That makes him 33lb superior to Kamaxos from whom he was receiving 15lb on Saturday. He arrived at 100 having strolled home in his first handicap at Lingfield running off 88.

How that 88 mark was arrived at beggars belief. Normally horses are required to complete the course three times to be allotted a mark, but first time Naturally High unseated Jamie Moore before running twice more a long way out of the money. He was allowed in on that sketchy evidence but then having won the first time off a gift rating, allowing him in again off 100 was naïve in the extreme. Basically he started 15lb lower over jumps than the French figure when it should be nearer 45 or 50lb the other way!

I’ve no gripe at all with Gary Moore who had a big job to bring back to life a horse that had been bought for €120,000 at the end of 2018. Those two big wins might have started to get certain people somewhere near level with that investment because there is no doubt the money has been well and truly down both times.

It’s hard to see what can stop the hat-trick, save some overdue retaliation by the two-mile hurdles handicapper. Does he have the bottle or will he treat Naturally High (France) and (UK) as two entirely different horses?

*

I’m feeling a little bereft with the breeding stock sales’ conclusion last week and over the weekend in France. High-class racehorses and well-bred mares have rarely been in such demand and for a while on Tuesday any female with the requisite number of limbs and the ability to conceive was almost guaranteed to go to at least six figures.

I do not intend identifying the young lady who relates to this little tale save to say her putative trips to the sales have been mentioned here recently. She had her eye on a Shadwell filly – there were 90 in the catalogue last week – in Wednesday’s sale and hoped to get it for a song as it hadn’t run.

I had suggested going on Thursday when all the big buyers had gone home and she could pick up something very cheaply but at the same time be prepared for its being modest enough. She persisted and when I checked that evening whether she had any luck, she said, “No, it went for 70 grand!”

Now I know people in her situation that might have claimed to have been the under-bidder, like the Irish trainer who made very public that distinction in regard to the sale of triple Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq.

I was changing planes one day in the US coming back from Keeneland sales when Timmy Hyde caught up with me and said: “You were the under-bidder for Istabraq weren’t you? I know you were, I was standing right behind you.

“Well that fe..ing D…. M…..is telling everyone he was!” Saudi Arabia’s loss was Ireland’s gain, although when I asked how much short my 36k bid had been, Timmy said: “J P told me to go to 100 grand!”

- TS