Does Skelton’s Festival success herald a changing of the guard?

Amidst all the hand-wringing over the quality of British competition against the Irish, one bright light shone through on a week dominated by the Willie Mullins winner machine. Four winners for the Alcester yard of Dan Skelton, ridden by brother Harry, suggested it’s not all one way traffic west.

A Wednesday double courtesy of Langer Dan in the Coral Cup and Unexpected Party in the Grand Annual was re-inforced the following day by a Grade I double of Grey Dawning in the Turners and Protektorat in the Ryanair. The total haul catapulted the Warwickshire yard into first place in the Trainers’ Championship.

The Skelton brothers outlined their plan for more of the same in an interview on Luck on Sunday with the eponymous Nick Luck. The big fixtures at Aintree, Ayr and Sandown will define where the championship ends up.

It’s anything but over yet however. Paul Nicholls is chasing a 15th championship and is unlikely to give way readily. Equally, the troubled yard of Seven Barrows may see a resurgence, and winning the Grand National can be a gamechanger.

But for the first time in a decade, the pre-eminence of the old guard among trainers looks rocky. Challenger yards like Ben Pauling’s, Fergal O’Brien’s and Lucinda Russell’s are all making their presence felt at the top table. These are yards unafraid to run their horses on the premise that if you’re not in, you can’t win. Their winning strike rate is lower than Nicky Henderson’s for example, but they run more horses pro-rata. They and Skelton are already snapping at Ditcheat’s heels and festival success at Cheltenham or Aintree would introduce them to the sort of wealthy owners that could accelerate their progress into the top 5, and in Skelton’s case, to the number one slot.

The Festival was undoubtedly diminished by the absence of so much high quality bloodstock from Seven Barrows, and it is to be hoped that the all-clear comes in time for Henderson to reassert himself at Aintree or Sandown. But at 73, he’s in the twilight of a career spanning 50 years. He might be forgiven for focusing on quality rather than quantity. He’s not going to be chasing a champion moniker just for the sake of it.

One outlier performing well beyond themselves this term is Venetia Williams. Courtesy of performances from L’Homme Pressé, Royal Pagaille and Chambard, she finds herself in 5th position in the table, and were it not for Willie Mullins Festival exploits, she would be 4th. The yard isn’t large enough to go all the way to the top, but it’s been an outstanding season, and is far from finished.

Paul Nicholls though has plenty of ambition yet. Expect him to be looking to close the gap in the remaining six weeks of the season to make for a nail-biting championship finish. He won’t take being beaten by his former protegé without a good ding-dong.

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