ALCESTER-based trainer Dan Skelton has revealed that he’s keen to take a select team to this year’s Cheltenham Festival, which will be spearheaded by Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Protektorat.
Skelton has four Cheltenham Festival winners under his belt so far, with the most recent being Ch’tibello in the 2019 County Hurdle.
And he revealed that he was keen to just take horses to this year’s meeting who he feels have a genuine chance of improving his tally.
Skelton said: “In general I’m not going to have a massive team and I only want to take horses who have a real chance of getting into the winner’s enclosure.
“One thing we’ve learned over the years is that it can be a great place and it can also be a very frustrating place. We’re going to just try and take the horses who are either suitable for it or deserve to take their chance at it or the ones that we really think have to go – it’s not going to be too much more complicated than that for us. We try not to take too many 100-1 chances if we can help it.
“All of my horses are due to go for a racecourse gallop. We were due to go on Friday but that’s probably not going to happen now due to the ground.
“I’m probably going to try and seek permission from the team at Southwell and try and give them a day out on the all-weather instead. I haven’t seen a February like this so we’re just going to do our best in the circumstances – it’s important that they get an away day.”
Champion Day – Tuesday 14th March
1:30pm Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
Father Of Jazz, Pembroke, Pikar, Ittack Blue
2:10pm Sporting Life Arkle Novices’ Chase (Grade 1)
See Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase.
4:10pm Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
Molly Ollys Wishes, West Balboa
West Balboa: “She has an entry at the weekend in a £50,000 handicap at Ascot. She won the Lanzarote and what was remarkable about that race this year was the fact that there were 20 starters and only four finishers – which is remarkable for a track like Kempton. It was a very attritional race.
“I think she’s an improving mare and her handicap mark underestimates her currently. She’ll definitely get entries in the handicap races and she’s also in the Mares’ Hurdle. If by some miracle of rain I was able to get a race into her this weekend, we’d take a view after that but if nothing came together and I wasn’t 100% happy she could miss Cheltenham and go to Aintree.
“She’s a beautiful mare and I think she’s a real improving horse. I’d have loved to have had a smooth January and February with her, if she’d have got that then maybe she’d have gone to the Mares’ Hurdle as it’s shaping up to be a fantastic race and one of the best of the week.
“She falls short of numbers at the moment for that race but that doesn’t offend me at all. It is the situation she’s been in – she’s stepped out of novice company having had a small injury and only had a couple of runs since. I wouldn’t be surprised if this mare took massive strides forward in the next months but also in the next year. She could even go chasing, she’s that good.”
Festival Wednesday – Wednesday 15th March
1:30pm Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
See Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.
2:10pm Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase (Grade 1)
Galia Des Liteaux
“She was an excellent winner of the Grade Two Hampton Novices’ Chase at Warwick last month. Nothing went to plan in the Kauto Star at Kempton the month before that – she jumped on the second jump and I feel because she did that she missed one midway through the race and Harry pulled her up.
“There was a bit of chatter about shadows at Kempton that day, but I’m not using that as an excuse. These things can happen in novice chases. She put the record straight at Warwick last time out and she loves soft ground.
“If you got soft ground in the Brown Advisory, I think she would be a certain player getting 7lbs. I have entered her for the Mares’ Chase this morning as well, which is two and a half miles but on a track which will suit her better.
“If it didn’t rain enough we’d have to miss as it’s imperative that she has slow ground. She’s a great big strong mare and everything is big about her.”
Ballygrifincottage: “It was just a case of trying too hard with him. If you took me back to the time I’d still probably do what I did, but I’ve got the benefit of hindsight now and I won’t let it happen to another horse. You’re just thinking that if you don’t run now you’re not going to get a run, there was a dry forecast on the horizon.
“It was good to soft but he was just flat out from the get go and suffered a little bleed, which was not ideal. We’ll let him get over that but you never know, it may actually absolutely bucket it down and he’ll get soft or heavy ground somewhere.”
3:30pm Betway Queen Champion Chase (Grade 1)
“It’s a very open race and everyone has beaten each other. Everyone has got reasons for why they were beaten and everyone has got reasons for why they’ve improved.
“He won the Shloer Chase which he should have done at 1-10 and I actually think he ran really well at Kempton over Christmas (when second in the Ladbrokes Grade Two Desert Orchid Chase). That was on pretty tacky ground which isn’t perfect for him, I’m not making excuses though and we were beaten by a horse who was clearly superior on the day with those tactics (Editeur Du Gite).
“He’s gone on to frank the form significantly in the Clarence House, so there’s nothing about that run at Kempton which disheartens me.
“He’s very effective when very fresh, he was fresh at Cheltenham and the better the ground the better his chance. If the Champion Chase was next Wednesday with this forecast he would have to be a shorter price than what he would be on any other ground.
“All of these horses are beating each other, so it’s a very unclear picture. We’re very happy to have our hat in the ring and we think we can have him better than we did at Christmas – I think that’s a given with the type of horse he is.
“He’s going really well and his preparation has touch wood been very good, so we’re going there very positive. He was second in it before and we’d love to go one better. It’s not going to be easy but it’s a hard division to judge and there’s no standout in the race at the moment.
“He’ll walk around the paddock at Cheltenham and he’ll gleam, he’s a totally different horse when March comes. Hopefully we get a nice clear run now and we will get there in one piece with him.
“I think you can all see that if it’s a decent ground race, he’ll be bang there. Even if it’s good to soft I think he’s still bang there. We know that when it gets soft and heavy it’s completely against him but, hopefully, we don’t get that again like we did on the Wednesday of last year.”
4:50pm Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3)
Unexpected Party, Third Time Lucki
Unexpected Party: “We’ll keep him in the Graded novice chases just in case they cut up and we get a four runner Turners like we did last year. I’m sure that won’t be the case though and the real race for him this year will be the Grand Annual.
“A lot of people have been saying we’re really clever and we’ve been plotting a Festival handicap with him – I really wish they were right! The truth is he slips between two stalls on trip. He appears to not be the fastest over two miles and then he doesn’t quite see out two and a half miles, like you saw on Cheltenham Trials Day behind Stage Star.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re better off being a confirmed stayer over two miles than a confirmed non stayer over two and a half miles and a fast run race will suit him. We’ve been training him a little differently to get a little bit more out of him.
“He was a very nice hurdle winner at Ascot last year and then it didn’t go to plan for him in the Coral Cup for whatever reason, but that race was on very unusual ground. He’s been solid in his novice chases without setting the world alight. He’s been behind a lot of the bigger boys so hopefully he can get his chance in the Grand Annual and that’s his most likely destination.”
Third Time Lucki: “I think the reality is that he’ll probably miss and go to Aintree, but if the weather continued like this and there was fast ground, it would be silly not to. We know he likes nice ground and it’s not often that you get a chance to run at the Festival and particularly quick ground with a horse like him.
“Everything came together for him at Sandown the other day and he won nicely. I think it’s the first time he’s actually been down at the last and won, normally he’s got the race over by two out and has to last to the line. It’s the first time he’s knuckled down and really seen the trip out properly, which is very positive.
“More horses are suited by the Thursday-Friday track at Cheltenham (New Course) than the Tuesday-Wednesday (Old Course), but I happen to think that this horse is really suited by the Old Course. It’s a fast track and it’s perfect for him. If it stays dry, he would be an obvious horse for the Grand Annual.
“Personally, I think he’s an even more obvious horse for Aintree, but we’d have to have a look if he gets his ground.”
St Patrick’s Thursday – Thursday 16th March
1.30pm Turners Novices’ Chase (Grade 1)
See Grand Annual.
2:10pm Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle (Listed)
Ashtown Lad, Wilde About Oscar
Ashtown Lad: “We’ll see how he gets on this weekend. He’s qualified for the Pertemps, which is going to be a very different race this year as you have to finish in the first four places to qualify. It’s going to be a very different dynamic, but we’ll have a look a little closer to the time.
“I’m not totally convinced that the track suits Wilde About Oscar, but there’s a race for him the week after at Uttoxeter.”
3:30pm Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
See Martin Pipe.
4:10pm Festival Plate Handicap Chase (Grade 3)
“He won on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham. I never like to use the word entitled in sport, but he was obviously capable of winning a race like that after his run in the Paddy Power Gold Cup in November. A little bit of slower ground didn’t do him any harm that day and I’d love it to be good to soft, soft in places for the Plate.
“My opinion on the ground is that if it’s not ideal ground to run him in the Plate it’s not going to be ideal ground full stop, so that’s why I would probably keep away from considering the Ultima. I think there are better options for him.
“He’s a horse I feel can take the next step into open Graded company and I think he’ll improve for the step up to three miles. He’s been a fair team effort this horse, he joined us as an unbroken three year old and the most remarkable thing about his is that he’s been able to get over his first start over fences at Carlisle (when suffering a heavy fall). It was terrifying to watch but whatever he did that day, he’s managed to get his feet back under him and we are where we are now and I think he’s a real player.”
4.50pm Jack de Bromhead Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 2)
Kateira, Missed Tee, She’s A Saint, Vicki Vale
“We’ve got a number of entries for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle but I’ve got to see how they all are and there’s nothing concrete at the moment. They wouldn’t have the glittering profile that the likes of Luccia or Ashroe Diamond have got but I still think they will be players for places.
“Kateria pulled a muscle during her race the last day but she’s back now. She’s worked this morning and I’m happy with her. We’ll see how we feel a little closer to the day.”
Gold Cup Day – Friday 17th March
1:30pm JCB Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1)
Punta Del Este
“The English handicapper’s opinion of the French races is less than you’d need to get into the Triumph so depending how he gets on Saturday he could be one for the Fred Winter.”
2:10pm McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle Race (Grade 3)
Pembroke, West Cork, Faivoir
Pembroke: “He was a non-stayer at the Trials meeting and that was the only small question mark I had. I thought he’d stay, there’s no point pretending, and we will have to drop back in trip. He will be in the County Hurdle.
“The New Course definitely suits us better than the Old Course so we will go down that route.
“The County Hurdle seems to have suited us over the years, I don’t know why but it just has. A lot of our horses over the years have suited the New Course, the Old Course is really tight and you’ve got to have lots of pace so you can lay up and kick on whereas the Old Course you can just be a little bit more patient.”
Faivoir: “He ran disappointing the other day and goes to the Morebattle at Kelso and we’ll see. He ran in that race and then the County last year, so it’s not out of the realms of possibility.”
West Cork: “We’ll get a run under his belt and he will then go for the County Hurdle as well. He’s every right to refuse at a fence if I ever ask him to jump one!
“Because the little rascal isn’t going anywhere over fences he’s not even had a race. We can’t get him going because he just won’t take on fences. We’ve had three goes and it hasn’t worked, we’ll go back over hurdles now and I think you’ll find he’s actually a fresh horse.”
3:30pm Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1)
“I held my hands up after (the Paddy Power Cotswold Chase at) Cheltenham, I just didn’t have him as fit as I thought he was. If we’d have gone into this race with me saying it’s a prep run and everything else, I think people would have looked at it differently and seen it as a lovely prep run.
“I hoped he’d win and then we would come on to the Gold Cup, but that’s not how it has worked out. He was third in the Gold Cup last year and he’s a bigger, stronger and better horse than last year.
“I think you all saw at Haydock – when he was at his absolute best – just how good he can be and we just need to knuckle down and get him like he was at Haydock.
“If he goes into the Gold Cup like he did for the Betfair, I think you’ll find the run in the Cotswold Chase will be significantly behind him and I think he’s got a real chance. He’s a confirmed stayer and he can get round the track and he’s in an open Gold Cup. Galopin Des Champs aside it’s a very open race, everyone’s had a go at each other and there’s been different results along the line. On our Haydock form we’re right up there, it was a season leading performance.
“Drying conditions are a concern, but the longer we go dry the only certain is that it will rain. I’m planning on having a dry spell for Nube Negra in the Champion Chase and then it can rain for approximately 20 hours before for the Friday for us – that would be perfect!
“I do get excited about it but I don’t get overly emotional about it. We’re all trying our best and there will be a winner and there will be others that don’t win. If I get Protektorat in that form I did for Haydock, he will be bang there and he will be threatening, there’s no doubt about it.
“Everyone wants these kind of horses and it’s very exciting to have that type of horse. The Gold Cup is definitely the pinnacle of our sport, there’s no question of that, but he’s already won one of the grails in the Betfair.
“You’ve got to enjoy the journey and there’s no point saying a season was successful based on whether you did or didn’t win a Gold Cup. You’d very quickly fall out of love with the sport if it was how you performed on one day and that was how you were judged.”
4:10pm St James’s Place Festival Hunter Chase
Not That Fuisse
“He’s going to run and Jack Andrews is going to ride him. He won the other day for our yard amateur Heidi (Palin) but she doesn’t have the experience to go there just yet by her own admission. Jack’s going to ride him and he may have one more run beforehand.”
4:50pm Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase (Grade 2)
Galia des Liteaux
See Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.
5:30pm Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle
Langer Dan: “He’s going to get entries in the Coral Cup and the Martin Pipe. I have no idea why he runs so moderately in the autumn. I hoped he could go on to become a Relkeel type horse and keep your fingers crossed for a little more, but for whatever reason the autumn just doesn’t happen for him at all.
“I feel like he’s coming back towards something now, but he really has to. There’s no point messing around, but he is showing me something at home. He always runs well in the spring and I think we’ve just got to accept it is what it is now – he definitely has a chance.”
Dan Skelton’s four Festival winners
2016 Superb Story – McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle
2018 Mohaayed – McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle
2019 Roksana – Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle
2019 Ch’tibello – McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle