By Graham Clark
Breaking the dominance of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson at the top of the Jump trainers’ championship has proven a difficult task, but having split the pair last season Dan Skelton looks well-equipped to repeat that achievement this term.
After finishing second behind Ditcheat master, who was crowned Champion Trainer for the 12th time last term, along with securing four Grade One victories Skelton believes he has now set the “benchmark” for the 2021/22 season.
With the likes of My Drogo returning for another winter campaign alongside the like of fellow top-level scorers Shan Blue, Allmankind and Protektorat, it is easy to see why the Alcester handler retains plenty of optimism for the months ahead.
He said: “From a results-based analysis, having had Grade One winners and doing well at Aintree, in addition to finishing second in the table to Paul is a clear sign of the direction we are going and that is what we have got to try and maintain.
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“It is going to be difficult but that result sets a benchmark for this year. For the first time ever, we have got horses that can run in all the top end Grade Ones and we have never had that before.
“The man to beat will be Paul. He has a phenomenal running system and personally I don’t think we are quite there this season. As we finished second last year, we have got to be looking at doing that again though.”
Here’s a guide to some of his leading lights for the months ahead.
Arguably the most exciting prospect Skelton has is My Drogo, who will be switched to fences after completing an unbeaten season over hurdles in the Grade One Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree in April.
Skelton said: “I was very taken by the way he got on with things so quickly. I thought he would jump a lot better than he did at Newbury and that took me by surprise, but he learnt a lot in that run.
“He took the route he did and was very good at the end of the season. I’ve got no regrets about missing Cheltenham as the Neptune had a super impressive winner.
“If My Drogo has got any chance of, dare I say it out loud being a Gold Cup horse, we have got to get him to that point. We can’t let him accidentally fall into it by making false moves.
“He will go over fences this year but I don’t know where we will start. He will definitely go around Cheltenham this season. That is not necessarily 100 per cent to say he will turn up to The Festival, where the Marsh would be his race.
“I can see him going to the December meeting for the novice chase there and I could see him running in a Dipper if the ground wasn’t horrendous.
“His schooling has been good and we will find a nice track on nice ground over two or two and a half and build from there.”
Nube Negra found only Put The Kettle On too strong in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March, but Skelton has high hopes the seven year old can open his account at Grade One level in the near future.
He said: “The Queen Mother was very frustrating because it was a bit of a scrappy race. I always said he would be the fastest turning in to the line and it was just he was second not first as Put The Kettle On pulled out more
“I’ve been really taken by his progress and I don’t think that progression has come to a halt.
“He is a horse that has done really well over the summer and you can expect at least the same if not a bit more with that first year of running against the big boys behind him.
“I will be gutted to go a career without winning a Grade One with him.
“We might look at the Tingle Creek but that depends on the ground but then if we have to start in the Desert Orchid like we did last year, then we will.
“Last season he went to Punchestown but the ground was too soft for him and the track is too long as it draws it out of you.
“If he doesn’t go for the Tingle Creek we would then do Kempton, Cheltenham and Sandown for the Celebration Chase which I think would be his cup of tea.”
The Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day beckons for Shan Blue, who impressed over course and distance in last year’s Grade One Kauto Star Novices’ Chase, should his comeback in the Grade Two bet365 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby go to plan.
Skelton said: “He was a revelation over fences last season. He jumped hurdles like he wanted a fence and they helped him grow up a lot.
“I will start him off in the Charlie Hall as he is good around Wetherby and he will then have an entry in the King George.
“At Cheltenham, we tried something unusual as Envoi Allen was in the race but ultimately Shan wasn’t at his best as he gave it his all in the Kauto Star and Scilly Isles. The Charlie Hall is mission one, then the King George.”
After making a winning start over fences at Carlisle 12 months ago Protektorat looks set to return to the Cumbrian venue to begin his campaign in the Listed Colin Parker Memorial Intermediate Chase on 31st October.
The six-year-old, who is part owned by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, signed off last season tasting Grade One glory at Aintree in the SSS Super Alloys Manifesto Novices’ Chase.
He said: “He went to Carlisle first time out and was brilliant and went to Cheltenham and was even better.
“The Dipper got rearranged which was a disaster as he went to Wincanton – he didn’t enjoy going right-handed on really tacky ground and that set him back. Then he went to Kelso and ran no race.
“He is a thinker who considers what is going on and that coupled with his wind was the issue. We got his wind sorted and turned up at Aintree fresh.
“I want to start him off at Carlisle in the Colin Parker. I know it is right handed but he won there last year and then the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham as it stands out like a sore thumb as it is worth so much money.”
Roksana will always hold a special place in Skelton’s heart having provided him his first Grade One win in the 2019 Mares’ Hurdle at The Festival, and Skelton hopes the nine year old can add to that tally before embarking on a career at stud.
He said: “I was gutted for her at Aintree. I just wish we had one of those two Liverpool Hurdles she was beaten in. If The Cap Fits robbed her then Thyme Hill did the same last season.
“She will go to Wetherby first time out then the Warfield Mares’ Hurdle at Ascot. She will go back to Aintree and then retired to be a broodmare. I don’t think we will go to the Cheltenham Festival with her.
“It will be sad to see her go but it is important to look after her. She has been phenomenal for us.
“We got her unraced and she has taken us all the way. She was our first Grade One winner so is very special.”
Allmankind was bred to be a Classic contender but the gelded son of Sea The Moon appears to have found his niche over fences highlighted by his Grade One success in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown Park in November.
Having seen out an extended two and a half miles well when successful in the Grade Two on his final start in the Future Champions Novices’ Chase at Ayr in April, hopes are high he can excel over that trip this season.
Skelton said: “Allmankind was magic last season and the way he improved over fences last season was brilliant.
“I thought he would go to Cheltenham and win that four year old hurdle as I couldn’t see him being beaten.
“It was the best decision we made to go chasing. He won a Grade One, he won the Kingmaker at Warwick then he won up at Ayr over two and a half.
“He will probably go to Newton Abbot on the 10th of October and then to the Old Roan at Aintree as I think that will really suit him.”
Having saddled Allmankind to glory in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown Park last season, Skelton believes that in Third Time Lucki he could have another solid candidate to strike gold in the Grade One prize.
He said: “If he had turned up fresh at Aintree he would have been a big player. He jumped the last in front in the County Hurdle in a slow run race which didn’t work out and he got beaten by a very good ride in the Sharp Novices’ Hurdle.
“We should have been a little bit more cautious where we ran him, but he has got loads of experience under his belt and is ready to go chasing now.
“He is an out and out two miler with loads of speed and he will be very exciting. In my opinion he wants one run and then go for the Henry VIII at Sandown.
“I feel like he has got a bit of making up to do as he was the best bumper horse in the UK the season before last and he was a high-class hurdler last season without winning a marquee race.”
Wilde About Oscar
With Roksana set to bow out from the staying hurdle division this season, Skelton feels that Listed winner Wilde About Oscar could be the horse to fill that void if finding further improvement stepped up to three miles.
He said: “We are going to run at Aintree on the 6th of November in a two and a half mile conditions hurdle which is perfect for him.
“I’m very interested to step him up to three miles. I’m not saying I’d be disappointed if he didn’t make the step up to the top level over three miles but Paisley Park has shown you can go from handicapper to the next level.
“I do think three miles will bring out a bit more in him as the more time you give him at the jumps, the better he will be.
“He has only got to find seven pounds on official ratings which he can do to be up there.”
Faivoir proved a model of consistency either side of his Grade Two success in the Rossington Main Novices’ Hurdle at Haydock Park, something Skelton hopes the six year old can translate to fences this season.
He said: “He was brilliant last season. We always thought he would win his maiden hurdle at Cheltenham, which he did, then he just improved. He won a Grade Two at Haydock under a good ride from Bridget (Andrews).
“This season we will go novice chasing. He will either take to it and be brilliant or knock every fence out of the ground and be back over hurdles.
“We have schooled him a couple of times over fences this year and he has been good.
“There will be one or two he takes a chance with but at the same time he is not a risky proposition.”
With last season’s Imperial Cup winner Langer Dan sidelined for the first part of the season chances of landing a big handicap pot could rest with this year’s Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle runner-up Calico.
Skelton added: “We chucked him in quite deep last season as he was a high-class Flat horse.
“He got outstayed in the Dovecote at Kempton but I was gutted as I thought he would win. He will improve a lot this season and start off in the Welsh Champion Hurdle.
“He is possibly one for the Greatwood, though I wouldn’t mind a look at what was The Ladbroke at Ascot as that might suit him better.”
Among all of those horses well established is a good crop of new blood including the John Hales-owned Message Personnel, who Skelton believes could be worth following this season.
He said: “I think he is pretty tidy. He is quite strong and sure of himself as a juvenile. He looks more like a four or five year old.
“He has just got that edge about him and that is the best way to describe him and he could be exciting.”
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