For National Hunt trainers, the Cheltenham Festival is the pinnacle of the sport, and missing it is almost unheard of. People like Warwickshire’s own Dan Skelton need to prove to punters and pundits that they can produce exceptional winners that deserve to grace the event. It’s part of their sporting legacies.
Even winners at Stratford as early as September are bookmarked for the Supreme Novices’ “if all goes well over the winter”. The year runs the risk of becoming top-heavy around just 28 races, less than 1% of the total run in the UK alone.
Things haven’t been going to plan for the Skeltons at Cheltenham in recent years, with Dan being among most of Britain’s top trainers in failing to secure a winner in 2020. Although it’s unthinkable, is it worth the yard focusing on success away from the iconic venue in 2022?
The Grand National is wide-open
There’s no doubt that the Grand National is as prestigious as any Cheltenham race, especially for British trainers and jockeys. Of course, the competitive nature of the event makes it incredibly challenging to win. Skelton’s outfit hasn’t done it yet, but it has an excellent opportunity in 2022 because the field may be weaker.
Currently, the horse racing betting quotes Any Second Now and Minella Times as 16/1 joint-favourites. The latter won the race by six-and-a-half-lengths in 2021 from the former, so it’s easy to see why they are strong contenders. However, Skelton’s only entrant was Blaklion and he ended the race sixth. He might have been 36 lengths behind the winner, but the 12-year-old has the experience to burn and didn’t run very often before his Grand National appearance last time around.
With a better warm-up during the 2021/22 season, the former National champion could feasibly close the gap, particularly if his training is dedicated to bouncing back at the Grand National. After all, Blaklion is an Aintree specialist and that counts for a lot at the Merseyside venue.
What’s more, the National is no longer a one race wonder. Many of the other races are viable alternatives to Cheltenham, or for the lucky few, an additional opportunity for lucrative prizes. Cheltenham needn’t be the be-all and end-all any more.
An Uphill Battle
Although it’s hard for British horse racing fans to hear, it’s essential to understand why UK mounts can’t match their Irish counterparts at Cheltenham presently. Last year, only five British horses managed to win, compared to 23 from across Ireland. Dan Skelton himself said afterwards that the Irish are better and the British racing system needs an overhaul.
Until that happens, it’s perhaps unhealthy for UK yards to target events they can’t win. For example, Third Time Lucki for Dan Skelton Racing is the fourth favourite for the 2022 County Hurdle at 8-1 behind You Raised Me Up, Champagne Gold, and Ganapathi. While Skelton has had success in this race previously, the official ratings of his rivals make for unpleasant reading.
Plus, Third Time Lucki failed to make an impression in the last edition of the race when he was beaten into sixth place by Belfast Banter.
Fans overlooking rivalry
What might swing it for the UK-based trainers at the moment is that the fans don’t seem to care about the battle between the British and Irish. Over one million viewers tuned in to watch the action on average in 2021, with a 1.5 million peak for Rachael Blackmore’s success in the Champion Hurdle.
It’s one thing trying to do the impossible when the supporters are desperate for something to cheer on, yet it’s another when racing fans only seem to want to see the best compete against one another. For Skelton and co, there’s not much point going toe-to-toe with the Irish when they had 82% of the winners with only 40% of the runners in 2021.
Instead, it’s smarter to regroup and pour over the long-term strategy. That way, he and his peers can bounce back and begin to challenge for Cheltenham honours in their backyard, rather than allowing the Irish to dominate.
That’s what the Irish trainers and jockeys did a decade or so ago when they were the underdogs. Now it’s the BHA’s turn to meticulously plan the future of the UK National Hunt racing scene.