HORSE RACING - Dan Skelton talks about his leading contenders at this year's Cheltenham Festival - The Evesham Observer

HORSE RACING - Dan Skelton talks about his leading contenders at this year's Cheltenham Festival

DAN SKELTON believes his team for this year’s Cheltenham Festival is the best he has ever had in terms of quality and is dreaming of Protektorat winning the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup, a race he describes as “the pinnacle of the sport”.

Speaking in front of the media at his Lodge Hill stables in Alcester this morning, the trainer was enthusiastic about Protektorat, who is part-owned by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, and positive about the chances of both Nube Negra in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase and Shan Blue in the Ryanair Chase.

Since taking out a license in the 2013-14 season Skelton has gone on to enjoy four Festival victories, having landed the County Hurdle on three occasions (Superb Story 2016, Mohaayed 2018, Ch’tibello 2019) and the Mares’ Hurdle with Roksana in 2019.

Referring to the squad he has prepared for The Festival next month, Skelton said: “This is significantly the best team we’ve had in terms of quality. To have players in the three big chases I think almost highlights where we have got to and where we are continuing to aim at.

“I’d love to have a couple more novice hurdlers going but you can only run the horses that are good enough to go there and stand up to the fire.

“I’d love to win a Gold Cup. I think the Gold Cup is the pinnacle of our sport and it is the one that says you had the best horse on the day at the biggest track and everyone was watching.

“The public adoration of winning a Grand National with Neptune Collonges when I worked with Paul blew us away. We were fairly used to a lot of attention with Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded and Big Buck’s and we thought we were ready for it and that happened and it was like, ‘wow’ – it was a different experience.

“Every winner has a story but the fact that Neptune Collonges immediately retired, was a grey and he won by such a small distance it all added into to it to make it a phenomenal experience, but the Gold Cup does just have that aura about it.

“A Gold Cup-winning rider or trainer – if you can say that then not everyone can.

“The more I do this job the more level I become as you can’t have catastrophic highs and depressing lows. If he goes there and gives it his all and finishes third he has done his best. If he goes there and wins and it is meant to be then great.

“I’ll be distraught if he goes and finishes eighth and never looks threatening – that would be disappointing.”



Protektorat (Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup)

He said: “He looks fantastic. We have been able to prep him specifically for two weeks’ time. I’m very happy with this horse. We made the decision in our own heads after Aintree that we would wait for the Gold Cup.

“As it was he could have gone to Lingfield as it wasn’t terrible ground. He could have gone to Trials Day in the Cotswold Chase but because we hadn’t built up for it we were never going to do it.

“We didn’t want to use a small amount of positive by running in a race this side of New Year before the Gold Cup because I felt the negativity of running in one far outweighed the potential positives.

“Of The Festival winners I’ve had, only one has run in the same calendar year and that was Roksana who needed a run to get ready.

“The other three winners I’ve had at Cheltenham ((Festival) never ran in the same calendar year. I think you have them prepared for it.

“It is such a big occasion you have got to have them ready and fresh. I don’t know how he compares to the very top Grade One chasers because we have not taken them on.

“The horse that was second at Aintree, Native River, is now retired, but with the greatest respect he was a significant distance behind us at the time and we weren’t tired passing the line.

“I don’t have any personal doubt about the trip in the Gold Cup but you can never be 100 per cent certain until you have been there and done it. One Man and Florida Pearl will tell you that.

“I don’t think there is one negativity there as to me he stays all day line. I was delighted to take him to Warwick the other day as it got a bit of fizz out of him.

“He loves to run and jump. He stays all day and I hope he can give us a right chance in a Gold Cup. I don’t see any negatives. It is an open Gold Cup but he has never run against the Minella Indos and A Plus Tards so we don’t know how he stacks up against them. All you can take is what you saw at Aintree and I don’t think that was a fluke.

“We always thought he would develop into a three mile chaser but I’m genuinely surprised that he is the shortest priced English horse in the Gold Cup at this stage of his life.

“As a juvenile he was a complete waste of time. Harry fell off him on his first start in the UK. It feels like it has been a long road since then but it has got better and better. He has grown and matured. He has just got the hang of things. It has shown if you give them time you can go the right route.

“When I worked for Paul you had Kauto Star, who would look impressive every day and was fantastic on the gallops. He was exuberant at what he did. He showed off.

“Then you had Denman who was a totally different type of horse. He didn’t have the natural pace of Kauto Star in that his work was work, whereas Kauto Star it was all graceful and easy. This horse is a grafter. He doesn’t show off in his work.

“He puts his head down and his knees come up which gives me positive thoughts for the Gold Cup. He won’t mind getting dirty seeing it out. If it turns into one of those gritty Gold Cups I won’t be afraid of having him there.

“I think this year is a strong Gold Cup as there is strength and depth as every horse has beaten each other apart from those that have never met them like us or Chantry House.

“I think those bits where he went missing last season can happen to horses. I got drawn into making a mistake running him right-handed running him on bad ground at Wincanton then I went to Kelso to try and put the pieces back together.

“The weird thing is if I hadn’t gone to Kelso and got a good hiding I’d have never discovered the wind was under pressure.

“I would have never re-done his palate and been in the position where we went to Aintree and took the hood off and put the tongue strap on and got the result. Sometimes things have to go wrong to get them right.

“I’m really relaxed about it. There is no point getting worked up about it. You’ve got a chance. If I had Shishkin I’d be getting worked up as the betting and everyone would be telling you that Shishkin should win. When you have got those contenders you get them happy and healthy and go racing. I’m in that position with a lot of horses this year.”


Nuba Negra (Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase)

“He is an outstanding looking horse. His coat is almost there – it is days away from being perfect. A black horse like him is going to look magnificent on the day. A little bit more sun and his coat will be absolutely spot on.

“His work at home is always very good but you would expect that from a two miler. He went to Warwick last week and we didn’t ask him for anything more than a day out and he did just that.

“He has to be fresh. The most important thing about this horse is that you have him super fresh. If you have him off the back of a run within a month it is too close. He puts so much into his runs.

“He puts it all in and he just empties the tank. The Tingle Creek we were heading to fresh then we saw the Shloer Chase was going to be on decent ground and I thought, ‘how could I not have a go at it?’ I’m delighted we did as it gave us a winner at the November Meeting which is a big deal.

“Maybe he would have won the Tingle Creek fresh, maybe he wouldn’t have. I don’t know. We will perhaps get a clear run at it another year. The better the ground the better the result.

“I think we have got a very fast horse that handles the track. We know we have got to have him fresh, and he is that. Shishkin is very good, Energumene is very good and if you listen to Willie (Mullins) then Chacun Pour Soi is better than Energumene.

“It is a hot race before you bring in Grade One winners like Greaneteen and others. We are very happy about our horse and I can’t do anything about the others. They are going to run their race and we are going to run ours.

“The only thing about a two mile race is they jump off and they go. Tactically you have got to be aware but there is not a great deal you can do about a two mile race. It is all in one direction they get off and go.

“You have got to have a clear round of jumping. If any of the top contenders make a bad mistake it will tell on them. You have got to get there and hope for a clear run and what will be will be.

“His chances are increased by the lack of rain. I’m as aware of the facts of this race and that those horses (Shishkin, Energumene, Chacun Pour Soi) have put up bigger numbers than anybody else.

“Perhaps in these events you need those to underperform. I’m not hoping anyone underperforms. I’m hoping we go there and win it on merit and I don’t think it is a million-to-one that we could.

“He ran brilliantly there last year. We know it is going to be hard but anybody can see why we are positive about him. Yes, (beating Shishkin would be better than beating Altior) because with the greatest respect we met Altior in the winter of his career where as we are meeting Shishkin at the top of his game.”


Shan Blue (Ryanair Chase)

“He would have won the Charlie Hall with a clear round. ‘But’ is a massive word in sport and he didn’t. He hurt his neck in that fall as you would have expected as it was a pretty horrendous fall. We gave him plenty of time. I spoke to Colm (Donlon, owner) in great depth and detail about all the options available to us in the immediate aftermath after falling and what our future targets could, should or would be.

“We decided then and there we would give him the time until the spring and let him get as well as he could. The only race that was in the back of our mind was the King George but we thought maybe we will get another go at that another year so we didn’t force him after Wetherby.

“We decided when he got into the spring if he was happy and healthy we would go down the Grade One route. I know his mark of 148 looks pretty salivating to be honest with you but he is a Grade One horse.

“For as many people that are saying, ‘why aren’t you taking advantage of his mark in a handicap?’ the same amount of people would say that is a pretty chicken route to take with a horse that was going to win by a long distance in a good graded race where the form has worked out.

“He looks incredible. I’ve been particularly happy with this horse. It just shows you if you take your time and plan them out and plot them out you can get them looking like this.

“This horse will have no excuses on the day. He went to Warwick (racecourse gallop) the other day and went very nicely. We’ve done loads of jumping with him since. I’m happy with what I’ve seen and Harry (Skelton) is as well.

“He is taking on people’s idea of a banker in Allaho but if you look beyond that I think the race will cut up quite significantly. I really like this horse and I think there is a lot of unfinished business. I don’t see there is any point taking on Allaho as you know a reproduction of last year’s race for Allaho will be sufficient to win.

“I think everyone was blown away by that performance of Allaho. What makes me think we could beat Allaho is that we have a horse that was putting up the best performance of his life before he fell.

“I think he is only getting better and is at an age that is allowing him to get better. The thing is Allaho put up such a good performance, was that the peak of his life? He might underperform by five pounds from that day and still be good enough.

“You have got to go in there optimistic and I think he is a good horse. Last year we had Envoi Allen in our heads. We just joined in the hype and thought, ‘how are we going to beat him? We are going to try and out-jump him’.

“It was stupid it was my fault and I wish we hadn’t done it. Ultimately it didn’t do the horse any harm. He came out this season and won a very competitive race by as far as he wanted. That race didn’t have a mark on him, which I have to say we are lucky to get away with as a lot of horses would hold that against you, but he didn’t as you can see he is robustly built.

“That horse can’t be better. The race at Wetherby told you he could be at least a stone better than that (148). The racecourse does the talking.”


Third Time Lucki (Sporting Life Arkle Novices’ Chase)

“I’ve spoken to Mike (Newbould) and I’m 99 per cent certain he will go to Aintree. We may confirm him for the Arkle in case it is a dry forecast but I’m pretty sure he will go to Aintree.”


Spiritofthegames (Cheltenham Plate Handicap Chase)

“The race I would like to get in is the Plate. That would almost be for the yard the result of the week if old Spiritofthegames could win. I should imagine he will run his race and do his thing.

“He is off his lowest mark ever and he will run his race and do his best. There will probably be a younger horse with a few more pounds in front of him that can beat him from the back of the last.”


Ch’tibello (Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle)

“He could run in the Martin Pipe but we will have to see closer to the time. I just hope he hasn’t had his last win. I know that he is getting older and everything else but he retains so much enthusiasm at home.

“I’m chuffed to bits how he is now. It is just he is getting older and we are running out of runway. What I don’t want to do is have unnecessary runs and put miles into his legs that we will never get back. ”


Too Friendly (Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle)

“He has got a good profile for the race I think. He is a 90 rated Flat horse so he has got absolutely chunks of ability. He has run in some good hurdles this autumn.

“His last run was at Doncaster where he wasn’t too far behind Knight Salute who is one of the leading English hopes for the Triumph Hurdle. We have given him a wind operation as I would rather have that and not need it than not have it and need it.

“I think he needs a small handful to get out of the race and if he did get in he would run a good race. He is a hurdling type and hopefully all things being equal he should be there going to the last.

“He is one of the speedier horses I’ve ever run in that race. We got Nube Negra beat in it because he is a chaser and we have had other runners get placed in it. This horse is the most flat and active type horse we have had for the race. I think he suits it quite well. He went to Warwick for a gallop with a few others and he went nicely.”


Unexpected Party (Coral Cup)

“He won nicely at Ascot on his last he has got a mark off 142 for the Coral Cup. I’ve got him entered for the Ballymore but I’m pretty certain he will go for the Coral Cup.

“It is a decent mark, 142. You would love to be in there off 138 but 142 means you will get in and you have got that breathing space of getting in. You are not going to go in off top weight. It is a good mark to go into a Festival handicap.

“In my opinion you need a graded horse in a handicap to win and hopefully he is that class. If there wasn’t a Cheltenham Festival after Ascot you would have all expected me to go a graded route with this horse.

“You can see why we think he is the right type of horse for it. He will handle the track no problem. He got beat there back in November through lack of experience but he has improved and improved. You can see he looks fantastic.

“He is a very laid back horse. Being by Martaline they can sometimes be a bit edgy but this horse is not that at all. We’ve got him right where we want him and I’m sure he is a contender for the Coral Cup. There won’t be an unexpected party if he wins – it will be very expected!”


Nurse Susan (Parnell Properties Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle)

“She is a big imposing mare. I’ve been very impressed with her in her three runs. She stood out in her homework quite a lot as a youngster. We never ran her in a bumper as I thought there was never any point to run her in a bumper.

“She loves to jump and the twice she won she never came off the bridle, nothing could get near her. The first race she had was against Love Envoi and she has done a lot for the form. I think Love Envoi is as tough a mare you could possibly come up against in conditions at Lingfield that particularly suit Love Envoi.

“We travelled well down the hill. We went to two out like we were going to beat her but she just found a bit more. I don’t think there is any disgrace for that. You can see she has got the right attitude for the game. I’m really happy with her. Lingfield was her first proper race and she came out of it for 10 days knowing she had a race.

“The last three weeks she has blossomed. I think it is a very open race and I don’t think there is anything that has been winning at amazing distances in Ireland at a high level that is particularly frightening. She is very good and I think she will only improve as her career goes forward. I think she has got it all.”


Elle Est Belle (Parnell Properties Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle)

“I’m not running Elle Est Belle in the race but I won’t scratch her immediately as I’ve said all along that I’m pretty sure she will go to Aintree. Nothing is distracting me from that. I think it is the right thing to go two and a half miles there.

“Two miles at Cheltenham could just get her at it. Instead of going to the mares’ novices’ hurdle at Cheltenham giving away weight she can go against the boys at Aintree on a track that suits her better on a trip that suits her better getting seven pounds off the boys who might have gone to Cheltenham and had a hard race.”


Doctor Parnassus (JCB Triumph Hurdle)

“He is built like a tank. He is a really strong experienced horse is – that’s how I would describe him. I liked what I saw in pre-training – what I saw off him when we got him off the Flat.

“What attracted me to him most is that he is a half-brother to Metier. I just felt this horse would be an ‘add milk and stir’ juvenile. I didn’t know how good he was going to be. I just thought he would make a simple transition to hurdles.

“It hasn’t taken me by surprise that he is this good as he has got the physical make-up and the attitude to do it. He was good at Ascot then he has then gone to Taunton, where I ran him over 2m 3f deliberately as you can’t be frightened off stamina if you are going to run in a Triumph Hurdle.

“With respect he should have beaten those horses getting the age allowances and everything else. I was stood down at the last and I was amazed how he picked up from the back of the last to the line as he powered through to the line.

“He doesn’t do anything flashy – he is just a grafter. I think you need a grafter for the Triumph. He won’t mind if he has to get dirty. I don’t think the ground is a concern at all. I don’t think it runs through his head what he is running on.

“He has got a Forest Gump attitude in that he just runs. The best juveniles off the Flat are the ones that are hardy and robust. They are mature for their age. I don’t know if he is good enough to win a Triumph Hurdle but his two racecourse performances have been very good but he has done it against horses that aren’t going in a Triumph Hurdle.

“He has got to step up now. I was always going to go straight there after Taunton. On form Vauban, Fil Dor and Pied Piper – what they have done it looks visually impossible to win, but it doesn’t work out like that with juveniles and the Triumph Hurdle is a tough race. I love that grafter’s attitude in a juvenile. Tough juveniles are an asset to any team.”


West Cork (McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle)

“I really like this horse. He won the Greatwood off a long break. He went to Ascot and had a terrible overreach. I’ve never seen as bad an overreach in my time with any horse, let alone any racehorses.

“I’m amazed we got away with it. When it happened two out at Ascot he was just on the cusp of weakening. Having that two weeks on the horse walker where he couldn’t gallop ensured that he couldn’t run until now.

“I’m not going to back-track on what I said going into Ascot. I still believe that this horse is a graded horse. I still believe he will go further than where he currently is. His mark of 141 ensures he gets into the race without being top weight.

“I’ve done everything I did in terms of time, structure and depth of work as I did in the build up to the Greatwood. I think he is as good a chance as we’ve taken there before. He will love the track and he has got loads of pace.

“He is a strange horse. When we first got him from Ireland we gave him a flu vaccination and it hit him for six. We couldn’t run him the first year we had him, then he was getting ready to go novice chasing last season, went for a gallop, came off the lorry and slipped off the lorry and grazed the tendon at the back of his fetlock but it meant he had to have four months off. He has just been a little unlucky. He will not be far away.

“He is a National Hunt horse and he wouldn’t have the speed of a Superb Story and he hasn’t got the Flat class of a Mohaayed. He is probably most like Ch’tibello, but he would have a bit more speed than him as well. He is a strong staying two miler this horse.

“He won the Greatwood on the old track but I would have my balls to a barn dance he is better on the other track. I could run Faivoir in the County Hurdle as well. He is in the Morebattle Hurdle at Kelso but if he is in for a bonus he better have a pop. Lucky One is going to run in the Imperial Cup and if he got a penalty he would have a go as well.”


Ballygrifincottage (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle)

“He is in fantastic form to be honest with you and his coat has improved over the last two weeks. He did well out of Lingfield and won a race that perhaps he should have won having done so well at Cheltenham in December.

“Because he is a three miler and has run in a heap of point-to-points he never sparkles at home but those horses don’t. I think at his age and his experience in point-to-points and his ability to relax early but then to really see out the race is a real advantage.

“This race doesn’t turn into a classy affair but a slugging match. I think he is well able to get involved in that type of scenario. Whether he is quite classy enough from three out to the last I don’t know.”


Langer Dan (Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle)

“Hopefully Galopin Des Champs Mark II doesn’t turn up in the Martin Pipe. He is the smallest of our team but what he lacks in height he makes up for in determination.

“He had a small little setback in the autumn. It wasn’t a catastrophic injury but it just meant we had to give him a little bit of time off. I spoke to Colm that we will leave him to the spring as that is where we want him. I had to run him the other day at Taunton because I needed to get a run into him.

“I would have loved to have gone to a more galloping track, or run over two and a half (miles) but there wasn’t anything that fitted perfectly. I would have loved to see him finish further up the field as how can you say finishing last is a great result.

“It is more about how he has been since. I said to Colm we need everything to go well. It hasn’t been a rush against time but every day has had to be perfect and touch wood it has.

“The way he has come out of Taunton gives him a real chance. He has come out the race really well and his coat is just starting to turn now. Give him two weeks and he will be blooming in his coat.

“His fitness is there now. It has just got to come together on the day. His mark is acceptable and it gets him in the race. He stays the trip well and Lorcan Williams will ride him again. I’m chuffed to bits with him.

“If you had asked me this time last week, ‘what do you think this is – more hope than expectation?’ but now I can say I’m not only sure he will get there but that he will be in the best shape I can get him in because Taunton has done the job.

“I felt the other day there was a bit of spark there. Now I’ve got through Taunton I’m starting to grow with enthusiasm.”

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