Skelton and Hughes match strides

Racing is always better served under blue skies and moderate temperatures, and so it was  for Stratford’s,second meeting of the season as an 8 race card welcomed owners back to the racecourse for the first time since November. It felt like the beginning of the start of normality.

One of the themes of this last month of the season has been the tussle for the top place in the Jockeys’ Championship. Brian Hughes’ plan to swerve Cheltenham in order to build up a lead elsewhere didn’t play out as well as he’d planned, but the Skelton team drew a blank at Cheltenham too, since when a four-timer at Southwell has lit up the race to the Championship on April 24.

The Championship was the dominating story of the day’s racing, when Harry Skelton’s four-timer further eroded the slender lead of the current champion, Brian Hughes. The card opened as the well-backed Skelton-ridden Stepney Causeway made virtually all to win the opening Novices’ Hurdle as a 4/11 favourite should,  by 15l from Brian Hughes of Faitque de L’Isle.

Hughes responded in kind 30 minutes later when riding Nightfly to victory for Northamptonshire-based owner-breeder Dee Flory, on her first racecourse visit since before Christmas. Some 80 owners accompanied her to see their horses run on this first day with a lower restriction of admission.

The Skelton pair fought back again to narrow the gap in the feature Visit Handicap Chase. 10 Year old Rocco was always handy and took up the running from Colorado Doc down the back straight for the final time. Skelton Jnr was not going to make any mistake and put yards between him and the runner-up to bring his score to 122 and the deficit back to 3.

With his tail up, Harry Skelton concluded the card with the last two winners, in Dan Gun and Get Sky High in the second division of the handicap hurdle and the bumper.

So much the trend nowadays in racehorse ownership is among groups rather than individuals, and who can be surprised? After all, it’s so much more fun to be sharing in the joy of ownership among friends than on your own. Certainly, it’s sure that owner Andrew Gemmell was enjoying himself most of all in the company of other members of the syndicate he was permitted to join – The Frisky Fillies. Lest I be branded a chauvinist, they chose the title themselves for their horse Flemcara, who won the handicap hurdle in the middle of the card under Tom Bellamy. Andrew, you may recall, has been blind since birth, but is also the owner of Paisley Park, one of the gutsiest horses in training.

Emma commented afterwards, “It’s difficult to know who enjoyed that more – the horse or rider. Both came back with big grins on their faces! Flemcara has been chasing, but didn’t take to it as he does hurdling, and will stay over the smaller obstacles.” Certainly, if you followed the winner, you’ll have seen ears pricked for much of the second circuit, even when asked for an effort – a sure indication the winner was relishing the contest.

The winner didn’t have a hard race, so may reappear before the end of the season, ground conditions permitting.

Andrew Gemmell with trainer Emma Lavelle at Stratford. 29/3/2021 Pic Steve Davies

The first division of the 2m 6f handicap hurdle resulted in a welcome winner for Henry Daly, who has endured a torrid season he’ll be glad to forget. This winner at least gets him into double figures, but he’s not a man seen on the racecourse frequently when the sun is beating down, so may put this lockdown year down to experience. French-bred Guillemot, owned by former Senior Steward Sir Thomas Pilkington, was breaking his duck with a pair of blinkers to assist. As it was, Henry stayed just long enough to greet his winner and for an interview before retreating back to Ludlow.

We’re off! A new season at Stratford

Stratford’s new 2021 season opened under intermittent blue skies and a temperature slightly above the average for the time of year. But whereas one might have expected a buzz of anticipation around a season of summer jumps action ahead, or even the Cheltenham Festival the following day, the atmosphere remains subdued and professional.

The number of horseboxes in the car park outnumbered the volume of personnel at the course all engaged in going about the day-to-day business of horseracing. The nearest to a crowd was the smattering of walkers on the railway bridge overlooking the 2m start.

However, that didn’t take away from some interesting action on the course, with good ground appearing at last after a winter of wet and bottomless conditions.

The season began as it had finished, led by Warwickshire’s leading trainer, Dan Skelton in the juvenile hurdle, whose Stepney Causeway made all and won by 2 ½ l under brother Harry – further confirmation, were it needed, that the Skelton camp is in fine form approaching 28 of the best races of the year later this week. The Skelton run of form was compounded by the later win of Vision des Puy in the Handicap Hurdle, picking off long time leaders Glory And Fortune and Global Society 150 yards from the line.

In the Novices Handicap Chase, the well-known colours of Andrew Wates, whose winning record includes Rough Quest in the Grand National of 1996, were carried to victory by Kap Auteuil, picking up his second such race this year. The 22l victory  under Harry Bannister, despite a hike of 12lb, shows there may be more to come and no-one was surprised if the 6/4 favouritism was any guide.

“Andrew Wates has been an immensely patient owner, and he’s had to wait a long time for this fellow to come good,” said trainer Toby Lawes afterwards, reflecting on his seventh winner of the term.

The West Country took home a winner of the following Novices Handicap Hurdle when Blazing Saddles was a competent if unspectacular winner from Isthebaropen and White Turf, under Matt Griffiths for Jeremy Scott, this the pair that enjoyed a heart-stopping success at Ascot in February when the Dashel Drasher won the Betfair Ascot Chase by the scruff of the neck.

And it was as far west again for the feature Handicap Chase over 2m 6f as Joueur Brasilien, another French-bred, took up the running from long time leader Orrisdale and held off the Skelton challenger Accordingtogino to win by 3 ¾ l, bringing success to west Wales and Rebecca Curtis.

Brian Hughes on Joueur Bresilien beats Jockeys Championship rival Harry Skelton on Accordingtogino in the Richard and Jill Hurst Ruby Wedding Celebration Handicap Chase at Stratford. 15/3/2021 Pic Steve Davies

I watched that race with trainer Kim Bailey, one of very few trainers to attend the fixture in person. And if truth be told, a trainer’s main raceday role being to chaperone owners, their absence is very understandable, especially among those with strong teams to despatch for Cheltenham during the week. The Bailey yard has enjoyed a tremendous winter with a fine run of form and a first Grade I for 25 years. Kim, however, confessed to feeling very stressed about his best Festival team in years, “Actually, I get stressed about every runner I don’t own myself,” he remarked. Such is the life of a top trainer, where expectation often exceeds reality. Not every ugly duckling turns into a swan.

One team this season where reality has exceeded expectation is Bailey’s neighbour across the Withington valley at Ravensbrook Farm – Fergal O’Brien. It’s next to impossible to keep the likeable O’Brien out of the headlines nowadays, and his momentum was maintained in the Novices Hunters Chase, appropriately enough for a track and a trainer that trade on their roots in the Point-to-Point field.

For a field that had seen more racing than most of today’s competitors put together, the field was most unruly at the start, wound up by 10 year old Golden Tobouggan, who sweated up and had to be taken to post early. No surprise therefore to see him and Alex Edwards make the running , but not before he’d sidelined another candidate in Maitre Express by kicking him at the start and forcing his withdrawal. The race itself was marginally less eventful, but at the business end, it was I’m Wiser Now who took advantage of the freewheeling style of Golden Tobouggan and Gottgottgetaway to take the inner berth up the straight and win by 5 ½ l. With the Point-to-Point season due to restart on March 29, it remains to be seen whether subsequent hunter chases will fill as well as those to date, but so far, they’ve produced some of the largest fields in recent years. Meantime, however, this notched O’Brien’s 86th winner of the term.

The afternoon had brought bright Spring sunshine to see out the Bumper to conclude the card, and with it, another local winner in the Charlie Longsdon-trained Parramount. Well backed at 6/4 favourite, he proved the second leg of a double for Champion jockey Brian Hughes, successful earlier for Rebecca Curtis. Hughes plans to swerve Cheltenham, and focus on the lesser fixtures during the week, where he can pick a hat-full of rides and consolidate his lead at the top of the Riders’ table. And whilst he may be ruing the modest challenge by northern-trained horses at this week’s Festival, that decision may give him the last laugh come the evening of April 24 when the season closes.

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