School Report 2021: must do better…. but can British trainers improve at the Cheltenham Festival in 2022?

The William Hill Trophy Handicap Chase” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Carine06

It is fair to say the 2021 Cheltenham Festival was a dominant week for the Irish, with UK runners disappointing across the board. Of the 28 races, just five were won by horses trained in the UK, which led to a lot of questions being asked about the quality of UK racing at the moment, and the ability of our trainers to get their best horses ready for the big day. Even now, our premier mid season staying chase has been won by a Mullins – trained horse, so our problems haven’t gone away.

The countdown to 2022 is on, and the big question hanging over the Festival surrounds how well the UK runners can compete this time around, and are they in for another drubbing?

If you look at the odds ahead of Cheltenham, then you will see a number of races where Irish horses are amongst the favourites, but even with that, it would be a stretch to say they are capable of performing at the same level as last season again. As it stands, Ireland is at 1/6 and the UK 6/1 to take the Prestbury Cup, the inter country tally to see which side of the Irish Sea fares best over the four days. While the racing betting UK odds certainly favour Ireland, the hope is that the UK can move in the right direction and get double-figure victories on the board. 

For that to happen, the UK would essentially need three winners on two of the four days of the meeting, with two winners on the other two days, but who are the main contenders?

The British best hopes for the 2022 Festival

The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle kicks off the Festival, a race that often goes to Ireland, but hopes are high in the UK this season. Henderson – trained Constitution Hill and Jonbon lead the market, after the recent Tolworth Hurdle victory of Constitution Hill, a race that he won by 12 lengths.

On the second day of the meeting, all UK eyes will be on one runner and that is Shishkin, a horse that is likely to turn up as one of the UK bankers of the week, assuming preparations go well. He won the Arkle Chase in great style last season and would love to follow that up by taking the premier two-mile chase event this season.

On Thursday, the most interesting runner on the whole card is more than likely going to be Champ. A Gold Cup hopeful last season, he was expected to go down that route again this season, but an impressive win over hurdles on seasonal debut has seen trainer Nicky Henderson open up a new option in the Stayers Hurdle.

The meeting rounds off on Friday and the headline race on that day is of course the Gold Cup. This is a race dominated by Irish runners, with the likes of Minella Indo, A Plus Tard, Galvin and Al Boum Photo all fancied to go well.

From a UK point of view, Protektorat, Chantry House and Champ, if he doesn’t run on Thursday, lead the way, but so far, all of them are outsiders in the race.

The disappointing total of five winners last season should not be repeated, but the strength of Irish racing right now means that low double figures is the best that the UK can hope for in 2022.

If you’re already salivating at the thought of the sport’s 4 day bonanza, consider also adding the Monday of that week here at Stratford. Our competitive card gives riders and trainers a pipe-opener to get in the winning mood before the tense moments of the subsequent four days.

Skelton and Murphy tune up for seasonal gear change

The Skelton machine has been quietly winding up to full speed, and this weekend’s full-blooded card across two days at Cheltenham and the Old Roan Chase at Aintree allowed some of that pent-up energy to be released. With a winner at Cheltenham on Friday and Allmankind’s seasonal debut at Aintree today, there was an indication of the latent firepower shortly to be released from the Alcester championship challenger.

Friday was the first day’s racing with any sort of crowd at Cheltenham since the infamous 2020 Festival, which brought the course plenty of brickbats given the level of infections that ensued afterwards as the first of our three lockdowns came about. Some 10,000 attended for what amounted to a normal day’s racing, although hand sanitiser and the odd mask were still in evidence. The overpowering atmosphere though was one of relief that racing can once again be enjoyed in the bucolic surroundings of Jump racing’s headquarters.

Even at this early stage in the autumn season, conversations are already hinting at March, and Third Time Lucki, last seen beaten 3 1/4l and 14 1/2l respectively behind Belfast Banter in the County Hurdle and Top Novices and the Festival and Aintree, did nothing to dispel such speculation with an impeccable chasing debut in the squareintheair Novices Chase over the minimum trip. 8 1/2l separated him from Irish challenger Buddy Rich, one of several runners from Gordon Elliott, at the line. His owner Andrew Newbould has the patience of Job, seemingly; he’s waited 30 years for a Cheltenham winner, and his horse is now quoted as short as 14/1 for the Arkle.

It looks like Skelton’s other winner of the weekend may skirt Cheltenham in March and endeavour to repeat today’s success in the Melling Chase at Aintree. Allmankind, winner of 4 races in his novice season including the Grade I Henry VIII Chase at Sandown, showed his liking for an extended trip in the Old Roan Chase over 2m 4f, beating fellow Warwickshire trainer Olly Murphy’s Itchy Feet by a length. There are further big races in store for both of these for certain.

Olly Murphy didn’t leave Aintree empty-handed however. French-bred Mackelduff, under Aiden Coleman, kept on strongly to win the £20,000 Jewson Wallasey Handicap Hurdle by 3 1/4l from Pouding Poet from Tom Lacey’s, and looks capable enough to win again.

Stratford may be winding down to its conclusion, but in every other sphere, the sport is girding up to full momentum.

Four Skelton horses to follow this winter

Visitors to Stratford are well used to seeing Dan Skelton’s horses come to the venue and plunder the spoils. The trainer has a fine record here, and he has continued that fine tradition with wins across the summer and early autumn, including last Monday with Too Friendly, ridden by brother Harry.

While Skelton has tasted plenty of success across the UK, there are some standout names in his stable. And with the jumps season upon us, we pick out four that are well worth following in the from the autumn right through to Cheltenham and beyond in the spring:

My Drogo

The horse that is arguably causing the most stir in Skelton’s stable, My Drogo has been called the “most exciting Skelton prospect” by Racing TV. My Drogo went four from four over hurdles last season, including a huge win in the Grade 1 Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree. That’s got tongues wagging over his potential when switching to fences this season. But Skelton is certainly taking a wait and see approach. The Racing Post called the plans for My Drogo “fluid”, and the trainer himself called for caution before fans get too ahead of themselves. He did mention the Marsh Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham as a possibility, however. And Skelton seems to agree with the assessment that the attributes are there for My Drogo to be a Gold Cup chance one day.

Shan Blue

It never really happened for Shan Blue last spring. Hopes were high after an assertive win in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, but coming up against Chantry House in the Marsh Novices’ Chase (Cheltenham) and Mildmay Novices’ Chase (Aintree) – Shan Blue was thumped by 32 lengths in the latter – was too tall an order. Pundits expect the 7yo to have a tilt at the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby later this month. Perform well there, and you can guarantee there will be a lot of buzz about Shan Blue’s chances in the King George VI Chase, a stated target according to Skelton. 888 Sport’s ante-post horse racing odds have Shan Blue down as a 33/1 shot for the King George – expect that price to tumble should Shan Blue look well in the Charlie Hall.  

Allmankind

Since moving to Skelton’s yard, Allmankind has seven wins from ten. But all three of his losses came at Cheltenham. There shouldn’t be too much read into that, however. Allmankind’s class is there for all to see, and lest we forget, the horse is still a 5yo. Moreover, there is a Cheltenham victory – back in November 2019 on his resumé. This season, you should expect to see him in action in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree in November. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. He’s doing the rounds on the ante-post markets for Cheltenham at 33/1 for the Champion Chase. But Skelton – never afraid to swerve the Festival if he feels it doesn’t fit – might have other plans.

Allmankind wins well at Sandown last December

Protektorat

Part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, Protektorat hinted at his class when delivering a (relatively) surprising victory in the Grade 1 Super Alloys Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree in April. Skelton describes the horse as “a thinker”, and the trainer has grand plans for him. Expect a run at Carlisle in mid-October, and that will likely be followed by a trip to Cheltenham in November for the Grade 3 Paddy Power Gold Cup in November. As with Allmankind, there is no clear pathway to what happens next, but a good performance in the autumn will open many doors for Protektorat, and that’s one of the reasons he’s a horse worth watching this season.   

Exciting autumn brings additional momentum to the sport

As the flat season comes to an end after this weekend’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, attention has already started to switch over to the winter jumps season. And for all that we love staging fixtures in the bright sunshine and warmth of high summer, even at Stratford, we recognize that the core Jumps season begins at the start of October, with the season opener at Chepstow racecourse on Friday, October 8, just four days after our first of three fixtures that month.


Stratford’s campaign straddles three seasons, but a week after Chepstow, our own autumn effort will come on Saturday, October 16, hopefully attracting some big name trainers and jockeys to accelerate the autumn season in style. It’s a fixture where summer successes meet autumn debutantes to see whether racecourse experience can trump higher quality breeding.


When autumn gets underway, there will be a lot of action on for jump racing fans to keep up with, and seasoned veterans of the sport will know what they are looking out for. However, if you are new to jump racing, you may want to try and pick up as much horse racing knowledge as possible ahead of the new season. This could include combining some other gambling-oriented hobbies with horse racing. If you like to play casino games, then there are many horse racing themed casino games available. These include Scudamore’s Super Stakes, a game available on many sites and with £5 deposit casinos, you can deposit a small amount.


With the additional knowledge you gain, you should be able to really enjoy the upcoming season.



What are the big events this autumn and winter?

Away from Stratford racecourse, there are a number of big events that you cannot miss this season – the highlights of jump racing where the biggest names from the sport all come together. The biggest week of them all is without a doubt the Cheltenham Festival, which is set to run on March 15-18, 2022. These four days see a tussle between the best from Great Britain and the best from Ireland, with 28 races and many huge prizes to be won. And British trainers will be keen to exorcize the ghost of 2021, when they received a fearful drubbing.

Ahead of the festival, as is traditionally the case, Stratford will race on March 14, the ideal place to be if you want to get yourself ready for the Cheltenham Festival. As an appetizer to the main dish, it’s also a fixture where jockeys are trying to remain in one piece, whilst spectators chew over the prospects for the morrow’s Supreme Novices Hurdle.

A month later, if we are talking about individual races then there is no bigger than the Randox Grand National at Aintree, which next year will be run on Saturday, April 9. This is a race that is watched by millions, including many who don’t usually watch horse racing, or keep up with the sport in any way.

The National is one of the biggest sporting traditions that we have in the UK, and will no doubt once again attract plenty of attention. History was made in 2021, when Rachel Blackmore (pictured beneath) became the first female jockey to win the race and given her rise to stardom in the sport, you would be foolish to write her off winning another. It’s great news to see her back after her recent injury. We’re unlikely to see her here in the UK until March though.

These are the two biggest events to look out for, but there are many more as the season progresses. Look out for the November meeting at Cheltenham, the biggest early-season meeting of the autumn. Christmas is another busy time, with the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, followed by the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow a day later. In reality, every weekend brings another great race to savour up and down the land.

Don’t ignore the grass roots of the sport

The counties of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and up and down the Severn Valley are a heartland for the sport, housing horses galore for every level of racing.

And whilst the recent National Racehorse Week has focused on the professional ranks of the sport at the country’s 60 racecourses, the strength of that support is fed by a hugely enthusiastic and practised amateur division at Point-to-Point level. Adapting to current trends, the Pointing season, which concludes at Stratford each May with the country’s most valuable set of hunter chases, this season will begin in late October. Venues like Chaddesley Corbett, Mollington and Barbury Castle allow budding horsemen and trainers to learn the craft or race -riding and training without the bright lights of television coverage. Any newcomer should experience this branch of the sport to see the champions of tomorrow. For local fixtures, follow Pointing West Mercian.


With all of this to look forward to, the new autumn jumps season looks set to be another exciting one. But don’t overlook us just yet… We’ve meetings of our own on October 4th, 16th as previously mentioned and 28th for our autumn swansong.

Should Dan Skelton Do the Unthinkable and Avoid the 2022 Cheltenham Festival?

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. 

Robin Dickin off the mark for the summer

You could be forgiven for thinking there were just two trainers around Stratford reading this blog, and it’s certainly true that Messrs Skelton and Murphy are prolific in their pursuit of winners. Yet Warwickshire and the surrounds of Stratford play host to plenty of other able handlers.

One such who’s had a lean time of it in recent years is Robin Dickin, who enjoyed a welcome change of fortune when winning a handicap hurdle at Southwell yesterday. One-time Irish winning Pointer, the French-bred 9 year old Phoebus Lescribaa, flattered to deceive on that winning debut at Lisonagh in 2016, and has largely disappointed since, winning just 2 of his 16 starts.

Former jockey turned trainer Robin Dickin

They say there’s a race in every horse, but the patience of any owner is sorely tested over lengthy gaps between entering the hallowed Winner’s Circle. Four changes of trainer, from Rebecca Curtis through Fergal O’Brien and Olly Murphy led Phoebus Lescribaa to Robin Dickin’s door in July last year. And if truth be told, by the end of last year, Dickin himself may have been having doubts after a series of middling performances.

But May 2021, the horse may have turned over a new leaf! Dropping from middle distances to the minimum trip, Phoebus was just run out of it by 1/2l in a handicap hurdle at Southwell, so it was little surprise that the enterprising and persistent Dickin returned there a month later to finally get his head in front, again over the minimum distance.

Robin started training in 1986 at the conclusion of a successful riding career under both codes. He’s since trained some 350 winners, led by Kadastrof, the prolific Dr Rocket, and current favourites like Thomas Crapper and Restless Harry, between them responsible for 15 winners including the Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury in 2017, and Restless Harry’s neck win over Teaforthree in the Weatherbys Hamilton Insurance Handicap Chase, a Listed race at Ascot in 2014.

Last season, however, runners and winners were well down on the halcyon years around the start of the decade. The team has adapted to new facilities at Alne Park near Stratford, where landlord Nic Allen, an enthusiastic owner and supporter of Stratford already, provides a benign interest in the developing business.

As every trainer will tell you, success is about persistence, doing the right thing on a consistent basis, and not a little luck. Owners can be fickle, searching for the latest name in the training ranks as if their methods were markedly different to any other. This is not to say the old ways are always the best; rather that the quality of training facilities all over the UK nowadays allows trainers to prepare their horses to much the same standards throughout, so fashions in choice of trainer often have a relative importance above their station.

Have no doubt. Top flight success and Robin Dickin will be bedfellows once more before too long has passed, and Stratford will be the better for it.

And so say all of us.

Stratford specialists the Skeltons to lead the fightback against Irish dominance at racing’s top table

According to the extensive database collected by Timeform, no duo in horse racing is quite as effective at Stratford as Dan and Harry Skelton.

Dan, the elder of the brothers, has trained 35 winners from his 167 runners at the course according to the stats – nearly double that of his nearest rival. Incredibly, more than one in three Skelton entries either wins or is placed at Stratford. We should mention his younger sibling Harry too. He has ridden 31 winners in the same timeframe – a success rate of 25%, with 38% of his rides at the track ending in victory or at least a place.

He claimed the Champion Jockey crown in 2021, landing 152 winners in a prolific campaign, and the hope for British racing fans is that the Skeltons can spearhead a return to the glory days for domestic runners at the Cheltenham Festival.

At the most recent edition of the flagship meeting, just four of the 28 races were won by a British horse. The Irish, on the other hand, claimed 23 victories.

There are plenty of different explanations as to why that might be, with the Irish bred and trained purposefully for the big meetings at Cheltenham, Punchestown, and the like. Meanwhile, some British trainers and owners prefer to focus on the nitty-gritty of the National Hunt campaign.

Either way, take Nicky Henderson’s haul out of the roll call of winners and it really does make for dismal reading for the domestic entries.

Getting Closer

The Skeltons have some excellent horses at their disposal, and a couple got close at the 2021 Festival.

Roksana was third in the Close Brothers’ Mares Hurdle, and ran superbly at Aintree a few weeks later to finish second in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Aintree. Available at 10/1 in the Cheltenham Stayers’ Hurdle odds for 2022 here at Space Casino, she could bring the Skeltons a rare success at the Festival.

But for a stumble late on, they could have been celebrating a win in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Their Spanish horse, Nube Negra, ran superbly well in the two-mile outing, and stayed on despite a fumble to finish just half a length behind the winner, Put the Kettle On.

The seven-year-old still has room for development, and victory in the Desert Orchid Chase – defeating Altior by three lengths in the process – was an outstanding effort.

Elle Est Belle secured another place for the Skeltons in the Champion Bumper back in March. The five-year-old is already a course winner, and produced an excellent effort to finish behind the more experienced Sir Gerhard and Kilcruit at the Festival. With another year of action under her saddle, Elle Est Belle could be another profitable campaigner at Cheltenham for the duo.

Other contenders will emerge as well, you suspect, with the likes of Langer Dan also promising a bright future. For the prosperity of British racing, the hope is that the Skeltons will lead a Warwickshire fightback against Irish racing dominance – starting with the Cheltenham Festival in 2022.

Four horses to become big stars come the winter

National Hunt fans are already looking ahead to the 2021/22 campaign with a great deal of interest. We saw a lot of talented novices shine on the track last season, and a few of these started their careers at Stratford.

Hopefully, some of these future stars will appear at Stratford in what will be a good test for them whether they are a hurdler or chaser. Here are four horses in particular which are worth looking out for.

Shishkin

Nicky Henderson’s chaser Shishkin won all five of his races over fences last season. The 2020 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner looked even better as a chaser. He was the clear favourite for the Arkle last March and as you can see from the latest horse racing results, he made no mistake in the novice championship over the shortest trip.

The 2m chase division is one of the most exciting categories to look forward to next season. Shishkin is going to have an excellent chance in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham against the more experienced horses.

It would be great to see Shishkin take a spin around the fences at Stratford, but frankly, we don’t stage the sort of races for which he’d be entered. A racecourse gallop wouldn’t be out of the question and as he travels so strongly and clears his obstacles with speed, this is a spectacle in itself. Henderson is sure to have lots of options with the horse in the early stages of the 2021/22 campaign, but it’s more likely we’ll be the venue for another emerging novice.

Allmankind

Lodge Hill trainer Dan Skelton knows all about success at Stratford. Nobody has had more winners here than Skelton over the past five years. He is sure to have lots of entries at his local course this season.

Regulars to Stratford will be hoping one of those is Allmankind who is one of the stars of his stable. The five-year-old was victorious in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown. He also scored in two Grade Two races. And although he didn’t grace Stratford during his novice season, Dan Skelton has a good record for introducing novice chasers around Stratford which tests their balance and dexterity.

Unfortunately for his connections, Allmankind was no match for Shishkin in the Arkle. That was his only defeat in five starts over fences. With the experience now on his side, the 2m chaser is a horse who could claim some big races next season.

Bob Olinger

One of the standout performances at the Festival last season came from Bob Olinger, an Irish horse trained by Henry De Bromhead. The novice hurdler prevailed in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle in impressive style.

Next season is going to be a big year for the horse as he will be linked with all the leading hurdle races. De Bromhead will need to decide whether his horse steps down in distance for the Champion Hurdle, goes up in trip for the Stayers’ Hurdle, or embarks on a novice chase campaign.

It’s unlikely we will see Bob Olinger in the UK before The Festival. There are lots of options in Ireland for him before he makes the trip to Prestbury Park. It will be great to see if he has improved further when he makes his seasonal reappearance around October. However, with crowds back racing again, Stratford’s fixture on the Monday of Festival week is likely to play host to Irish voices getting in tune, and hopefully a horse or two to accompany them.

Premier Magic

Finding winners is all about recognizing best in class ahead of everyone else. And whilst the previous three horses all operate in the very top flight of the sport, Stratford’s USP has always been its relationship with the grass roots of the sport. Our Hunters’ evening this Friday supports that case, with the most valuable card of Hunter chases anywhere in the UK.

Premier Magic will go off favourite for the Point-to-Point.co.uk John Corbett Cup, the novice championship for emerging talent between the flags. The eight year old is winner of all four of his starts this Spring, including Open races at Didmarton and Chaddesley, the latter in the prestigious Lady Dudley Cup, as well as a Hunters chase at Leicester. Trained and ridden by Welshman Bradley Gibbs in Hertfordshire, he is a darling not just to his owner and trainer, but to a growing following of Pointing enthusiasts.

Mark him out for the top of his class when it comes to the Cheltenham Foxhunter next March.

Keep an eye on all the action at Stratford over the summer and autumn meetings as the next star to follow the above four horses could be unveiled.

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