Can Blaklion make one last great Grand National effort?

Dan Skelton and his team had a solid week at Cheltenham Festival, although a winner eluded the trainer. Protektorat put forward a fine performance in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup, but could not match the pace of A Plus Tard from the last, finishing third behind a Henry de Bromhead one-two with Minella Times in second.

Skelton will now turn his attention to the Aintree Festival next week where he will attempt to pull off a shock to disrupt the potential for further Irish dominance of the major races in the National Hunt calendar. Blaklion is the best option from Skelton’s yard for a bet on Grand National 2022 at 66/1, although it would be a remarkable performance considering the age of the horse. It would be a surprise to see the 13-year-old top the Grand National results 2022 as the last horse of that age to win the event was Sergeant Murphy in 1923, and there are only three cases of competitors 13 or over who have won the National. None of these victories have occurred in the modern era, and the last six winners of the event have been under the age of 10. Nonetheless, records are there to be broken.

Blaklion was a strong contender at the peak of his powers under the tenure of Nigel Twiston-Davies. In 2017, he went to post as favourite at 8/1 for the National, but was beaten by One For Arthur. Blaklion returned as one of the top horses in the field for the 2018 race, but luck was not on his side as he was brought down at the first fence by a falling rival. The horse changed into the hands of new owners Darren & Annaley Yates in 2019 after he missed the Grand National, and was eventually passed into the yard of Skelton after a brief stint with Philip Kirby.

He was off the pace in his first races under Skelton’s charge, putting forward underwhelming outings at Ascot, Warwick and Newcastle before the 2021 Grand National. Although he was a 50/1 outsider, he still raced competitively at Aintree and finished sixth, which was more than a respectable performance from the veteran.

Blaklion has found his form over the course of the 2021/22 season after a slow start. He and the rest of the field were well beaten by Snow Leopardess at Bangor-on-Dee in November. However, he was on song to claim his first victory in five years, triumphing at Haydock Park in the Altrincham Veterans’ Handicap Chase. Skelton’s charge made it two wins out of two with a dominant display in the Last Fling Handicap Chase, finishing 28 lengths ahead of his nearest rival The Two Amigos.

He was unable to sustain his form in his last outing in the Grand National Trial Handicap Chase as he was pulled up four fences from the end of the contest, although only three horses completed the race in heavy conditions.

The 13-year-old does have a semblance of momentum and could be ready for one last great effort to etch his place in the history books. Aintree brought out the best in him some years back, and many horses approach Aintree very differently to park courses. It would be a remarkable achievement for all concerned, and running into a place again would be a feather in the cap of Team Skelton.

Bannister treble adds sparkle to bright Spring day

A large crowd appreciated the warm Spring sunshine as Stratford dusted itself off for its first weekend fixture of the Spring return to action.

Kap Auteuil has a keen appreciation of Stratford by all appearances, after his third chase win here within a year in last Saturday’s Paul Diblasio Memorial Handicap Chase. The seven year old has progressed to an official rating of 136, putting him within reach of some of the sport’s big handicaps next autumn with this sort of progression.

Kap Auteuil completes a treble for jockey Harry Bannister at Stratford. 26/3/2022 Pic Steve Davies

His trainer, Toby Lawes, has good reason to appreciate this bellwether of his stable, as does his rider, Harry Bannister, replacing regular rider Tom Cannon on this occasion, who was enjoying a treble after two wins earlier in the day.

Those two earlier winners were courtesy of Hampshire trainer Richard Bandey, for whom this season has been a breakthrough year. After winners counted on the fingers of one hand these past 5 years whilst graduating from the Point-to-Point field, this year the tally from Plantation Farm near Tadley, stands at 15. The fourteenth of these – Give Me A Moment – never looked like creasing his trainer’s brow in the opening 25 Club Handicap Chase, making all and drawing clear two out to ease down near the line, still 31l clear of runner-up Court Royal. And whilst this was a slowly-run race, the odds-on favourite was there to be taken on, but nobody did.

Half an hour later, Bandey’s cup overflowed, when Ernie Bilko, ridden handily throughout, took it up two out and ran on and away from the rest of the field, winning going away in division one of the handicap hurdle. For modest – sized yards, these days are magic.

In the second division of the handicap hurdle, Colin Tizzard edged closer to the £1m prize money marker when The Changing Man overcame Matt Sheppard’s Always Able by a comfortable 3 1/2l. The stewards looked into the horse’s improved form and were satisfied with the explanation that the horse appreciated the drying ground. In truth though, all the races were run consistently slower than standard, which leaves you wondering as to the quality of these two races overall.

Runners pass the stands in the Lady Ella’s Handicap Hurdle [Div 2] at Stratford. 26/3/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Another yard close to a personal best is Emme Lavelle, who is just £60,000 off her best season, achieved in 2018-19. With a growing number of horses rated over 150 that allow her to compete with the Saturday crowd, Emma is successfully making a go of her ambitious move to Ogbourne Maizey a few years back. This time around, it was American-bred Point Him Out, tranferred across from Michael Stidham’s outfit before Christmas, who broke his UK Jumps duck in the Margaret Banister Celebration Novices Hurdle. More to come here I’d say.

Stratford is a course that holds to traditions successfully, one of which is to maintain a series of selling races, which have largely disappeared elsewhere. A useful source of income to racecourses, Saturday’s was little different, the winner, a rare Skelton runner in a seller, being bought in for 29,000 guineas. It also produced another winner for emerging amateur Tristan Durrell, enjoying a ninth winner this season, all bar one for the boss.

The day concluded with a race in the name of the Cotswold Larder, a Broadway-based business that will be known to anyone visiting the Owners & Trainers’ Bar at Stratford, where delicious cakes are in abundance. The Cotswold Larder also supplies Fergal O’Brien, possibly one further reason why the likeable Cotswold trainer has acquired so many new owners!

Winner Lightfoot Lady clearly hasn’t been indulging herself with pastries, winning with plenty in hand on her debut for the Nicky Henderson yard by a comfortable 2 1/2l.

Kap Auteuil clocks four-timer to bookend our season

The feature event at Stratford’s penultimate fixture produced a race to savour when Kap Auteuil, successful here in March, completed a four-timer for long time owners Andrew and Sarah Wates in the colours made famous by Rough Quest in the National many moons ago.

Race sponsor Charlie Longsdon wasn’t represented in this annual race in his name, but he’ll wish he trained the winner, now that Toby Lawes has run up four chase winners with this French-bred son of Kapgarde. At the last, it was anyone’s race from the winner, Reserve Tank on the inside, and trying to come between horses, Carys’ Commodity. The last named hit the fence all wrong and capsized, whilst Reserve Tank fell independently, leaving the winner clear of a lucky Black Kalanisi for the Fergal O’Brien team. It’s an old adage but also true, that you have to jump round to win.

Kap Auteuil [noseband] and Tom Cannon win at Stratford. 28/10/2021 Pic Steve Davies

Toby Lawes, former work rider for Altior, and now embarked on a career training under his own name, has had a successful two days, this following a winner at Fakenham yesterday. If luck comes in threes, look out for his runners tomorrow.

The other handicap chase winner will have done nothing for injured Jonjo O’Neill Junior’s temper after Alan Cawley booted home the first of 3 winners today for the Jackdaws Castle team, with a double to follow under Richie McLernon at Ffos Las. Cawthorne Lad was largely unfancied, and was less than foot-perfect at the fifth, ninth and last, but by the home turn, Cawley had the measure of the race, and he was able to dominate Seamus Mullins’ Romanor, a winner here over half a mile shorter in July. The Jackdaws team are sending out runners and winners everywhere presently – definitely a team to follow.

The Queen may have something in common with Steel Wave, winner of the J H Rowe Memorial Chase later in the afternoon. Age doesn’t seem to be a barrier to either of them, and whilst the Gary Hanmer – trained Steel Wave can’t match Her Majesty’s 95 years, his 50 races ensure plenty of miles on the clock, but apparently, no loss of racing zest. The winner kept on nicely under Tabitha Worsely, another of our growing band of women riders ensuring racecourses are re-jigging the configuration of their changing room facilities.

Neighbour in the changing room, Bryony Frost continued her good week at the office with a follow up winner to yesterday’s at Taunton when Onemorefortheroad showed that experience counts against Alan King’s Call of the Wild in the British Stallion Studs EBF Nationakl Hunt Novices Hurdle. Frost conjured a good leap at the last against a sketchy one from her rival, and stayed on to a 1/2l victory.

The card opened with a mares maiden, in which Gazette Bourgeoise, trained by Ben Case at Edgcote, prevailed with some ease. The five year old ran consistently last winter whilst always finding one or two too good for her, and a summer seems to have improved her. A happy result all round, as well as for rider Harry Bannister, enjoying a 16th winner of the term.

Dan Skelton is a man on a mission to reach the top this season, focusing on quality runners to fill all the big races, but it’s rare not to write about him come a fixture at Stratford. We’re not going to make that omission here either, as despite withdrawing several runners on account of going quicker than he wanted, Dorisa Queen was able to send the team home to Alcester happy after triumphing by 4 1/4l in division one of the Wildix Unified Communications Handicap Hurdle, in the process earning brother Harry his 1,000th winner.

Harry Skelton jumps the last hurdle at Stratford for his 1000th career winner on Dorisa Queen. 28/10/2021 Pic Steve Davies

The second division went to another man in fine form at present. Ben Pauling has trained four winners in the last 7 days and the latest is 6 year old Norley, who justified 11/8 favouritism to win division two.

As if to prove that you don’t need to be of gold cup quality to produce a great finish, the Claire Dyson Equine Water Treadmill Selling Conditional Jockeys Hurdle produced a terrific finish in which any of three might have won at the last. The winner will head back to Grace Harris’s yard in Monmouthshire after failing to raise a bid in the ring afterwards, despite a most gutsy performance.

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.   

Who says mid-week crowds are poor? Stratford sets example for others to emulate

The results tallyboard for Monday’s card at Stratford took on a more familiar view as the big names of the sport flexed their muscles in preparation for Chepstow’s big prize money fixture this weekend that is the traditional launch of the autumn campaign.

Winners for Skelton, Twiston-Davies, Hobbs and Fergal O’Brien punctuated the meeting, with Evan Williams, Jamie Snowden and Chris Gordon also keeping their end up, watched by a large crowd of over 1,300 spectators. Proof, were it needed, that post Covid, the experiences market may allow racing to benefit from higher attendances now that people can get out and about freely once again.

Evan Williams has moved to new premises over the summer, and the largely dry autumn has, to date, kept his forays pretty limited. Less than half his anticipated volume of runners in September and October (to date) is largely a function of ground conditions, although there was no fault to be found with Stratford’s Monday Good To Soft ground.

But there was no mistaking the quality of finish from Howdyalikemenow in the opening Retraining of Racehorses Novices Hurdle, a comfortable 14l winner from Dan Skelton’s Jay Jay Reilly. In truth, there was but one horse in it from the fourth, and there’ll be more races to come from this admirable galloper.

As bellwethers of the sport go, you’ll find few better than Philip Hobbs, whose strike rate is consistently around 18-20%, and who has passed the £1m mark in win & place prize money in 6 of the last 8 seasons. If last season was less than vintage, this has as much to do with the Irish rout in March as being second bested by his peer group at home.

Irish – bred Canastero finally found the winning post at the ninth attempt when just getting up at the death in the Even Keel Foundation Handicap Hurdle. Too many finishes like that will bring on grey hair at the double.

There was an exciting finish to the Support the IJF Novices Handicap Chase, when Representing Bob, for Jamie Snowden’s Lambourn yard, overcame leader Give Me A Moment in the final 110 yards to produce a 24th winner of the term for Gavin Sheehan. In this week, when steeplechases have been thin on the ground, the other chase, for conditional riders, also produced good entertainment.

Representing Bob [left] wins at Stratford from Give Me A Moment. 4/10/2021 Pic Steve Davies

Winner Templehills, last a winner in mid October at this very course in 2020, came good once again when hitting the front under Jack Savage just before the last. Although less than foot perfect, he ran on well to score by 4 1/4l.

The remaining three races were all for youngsters, among which the most notable was Too Friendly, once a Derby Hope for Tim Gredley, now gelded and switched to a life with Dan Skelton. The Skelton team is another in no great hurry to get going this summer, but their winning presence at each of the past two Stratford fixtures is a sign that the behemoth is girding up once again.

Flat speed came into play as Too Friendly joined the leaders at the last, but he was less than foot perfect, and needed to persist to come out on top against Alan King’s Oceanline in the Stratford racecourse Supporting Racing Charities Juvenile Hurdle.

Too Friendly and Harry Skelton win at Stratford. 4/10/2021 Pic Steve Davies

Fergal O’Brien and Paddy Brennan kept up the pace at the head of the Trainers’ Championship when Samba Dancer ran out a 6l winner of the Novices’ Handicap Hurdle, whilst the concluding bumper, which attracted just 6 runners, fell to the 6/5 favourite, Chris Gordon’s Aucunrisque.

Five in a row for lucky Presentandcounting

There was a distinctly end-of-summer feel to this final weekend’s fixture at Stratford on a Saturday when racing competed with the delights of the popular Moreton Show, not 45 minutes down the Fosse Way. Those that attended were not disappointed however.

Hang In There, previous winner here and runner up in the Summer Plate at Market Rasen last time, led from the off in the feature Happy Birthday Jamie Bristow Handicap Hurdle for Emma Lavelle and joint owners Tim Syder and Andrew Gemmell. Despite carrying 16lbs more than his rivals, this in itself reduced by a 10lb rider claim by young Joe Anderson, he was able to brush off his rivals when they joined him at the second last, and from a 1 1/2l lead at the last, with an enormous leap, suddenly the race was all over. The winning distance of 7 1/2l told only part of the story. It will be no surprise to see Hang In There in some of our better handicaps through the winter.

Hang In There and Joe Anderson win at Stratford. 4/9/2021 Pic Steve Davies

The Keogh & Hows Handicap Chase won’t rank in the pantheon of high quality chases, but three time course and distance winner Franz Klammer approached it with a mind to make this four for local trainer Peter Pritchard. Making every post a winning one, he retained the lead, even after a blunder at the second last, and was only swallowed up by winner Rythmn Is A Dancer in the run to the last. A trier all the way, Franz Klammer lost nothing in defeat, and there will be other races – probably here at a course he clearly enjoys. The winner, trained at Ditcheat by Paul Nicholls with Harry Cobden in the plate, won by 7 1/2l to record his debut steeplechase victory.

Percy’s Word, successful here last month for the Skelton team, followed up in different circumstances with a hard-fought half length victory over the Philip Hobbs’ trained Camprond in the opening National Racehorse Week 12-19th September Novices Hurdle. Officially rated just 114, Percy’s Word looks much better than this, and can improve again.

This worthy celebration of the equine athletes at the centre of our sport is the brainchild of Richard Phillips, absent from Stratford whilst promoting new syndicates at Moreton Show. Yards all over the country will open their doors from next weekend to those registering on the national website. Phillips’ small yard at Adlestrop has already capped numbers at 300, so it’s reasonable to expect huge crowds at the open days in Epsom, Malton and the Henry Cecil Open Days in Newmarket. Former racehorses were paraded before racing to mark the week ahead.

ROR Racehorse Parade at Stratford. 4/9/2021 Pic Steve Davies

Presentandcounting was lucky to complete his hat-trick of Stratford wins in the Pardy’s Dairies Novices Chase under Brian Hughes. A winner here at each of the past two meetings in a golden summer that has also included novice chase wins at Worcester, Perth and Cartmel, Donald McCain’s charge made all but was headed by Hooper coming out of the final bend. It looked like Hooper’s race but he met the last all wrong and luckless rider Ben Ffrench-Davis was catapulted out of the side door.

That said, Presentandcountung has done nothing but improve all season; since his debut novice chase triumph at Worcester back in May, he has improved 32lbs, and there’s nothing to say he can’t figure among our top novices provided he can manage winter ground. Presendandcounting has made a valuable contribution to McCain’s excellent start to the season, where 26 winners to date have garnered over £200,000 in prize money.

Hughes was also successful in the Naf Racing Handicap Chase over the minimum trip later in the afternoon, notching a third winner this term for Charles & Adam Pogson from their Nottinghamshire yard. Having led much of the way, Larch Hill was headed at the sixth, but given a breather, was able to reel in Romanor from Seamus Mullins’ yard on Salisbury Plain to finish full of running.

Worcestershire trainers were able to keep some of the prizes nearer to home in the remaining two races. Well-backed favourite Bagan, held up in rear, moved smoothly through the field in the Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle to win the Seller comfortably by 7 1/2l for Tom Gretton. Rare for selling races nowadays, the winner found a new owner afterwards when Simon Prout paid £11,250 for this winner of 3 races.

Bagan and Jason Dixon [left] win at Stratford. 4/9/2021 Pic Steve Davies

The closing bumper was won by Strensham Court, trained by Sam Drinkwater within earshot of the eponymous service station on the M5. Kept up to his work by Danny Burton, the winner showed good speed to put distance between him and the placed horses, finishing full of running.

Caramelized provides topping to a regal weekend for King

We’ve not yet reached September, but it’s clear from Monday’s results that the established leaders of the National Hunt game are flexing their muscles in preparation for the autumn. Four of the sport’s market leaders put their marker down on the winner’s enclosure in statements of intent for the easing of the ground when better quality horses will make the competition yet stiffer.

The Skelton team has been noticeably quiet this summer in comparison to last summer, but opened their account for the day with just their 16th winner since the season began, and the third of Stratford’s season. Cast your mind back to the final 8 weeks of the season, when Harry Skelton and Brian Hughes were head to head in consecutive Stratford fixtures with doubles and trebles to see the difference in tactics this time around. Brian Hughes leads his rival by nearly 30 winners at this juncture.

Percy’s Word, beaten a neck in his last outing at Uttoxeter, finally broke his maiden in the opening Join RacingTV Now Maiden Hurdle, joining issue with the leaders between horses as they approached the final obstacle and forging clear to justify his even money favouritism.

The next few months are always a timer to identify newcomers to the sport in the form of flat recruits searching for a place in the JCB Triumph Hurdle. Fresh from saddling Asymmetric in the Prix Morny at Deauville on Sunday, Alan King produced an early contender in the form of Caramelised, a son of Dansili, who fairly trotted up in the second division of the RacingTV.com Juvenile Hurdle, winning with a penalty by 19l. Alan told Racing UK, He’s not a good work horse; he shows nothing at home, but we’ll have to take him more seriously now!”

Meanwhile, another yard that excels in autumn races accentuated its well-being when Goa Lil broke his chasing duck at the fifth attempt in the 2m 5f Novices Handicap. Owned by the trainer after having been sold on by Isaac Suede and Simon Munir in the Spring, Goa Lil was last of the leading group of five turning into the straight, but showed good speed under strong driving from Sam Twiston-Davies to win by 1 1/4l in the end. “Hopefully that’ll get him sold,” remarked the rider afterwards. Expect Goa Lil to make the most of the yard’s autumn. Whilst there are only 7 winners on the board, autumn has traditionally been harvest time for the Naunton yard.

Goa Lil [Sam Twiston-Davies] centre and winner jumps the last with Fat Sam [left] and Royal Ruby [right] before winning at Stratford. 23/8/2021 Pic Steve Davies

Another mainstream yard rarely seen out over the summer is Oliver Sherwood’s Rhonehurst yard. Indeed, bumper winner Puffin Bay was their only runner in August, and may make for a 100% record with less than a week to go till September, winning ears pricked from a fast-finishing Shantou Champagne for the Bowen team.

Rider Sean Bowen had previously been successful in the Dr Roberts 50th Birthday Handicap Hurdle on Wbee, enjoying a third hurdle victory at Stratford in five months for Gary Hanmer. Indeed, Hanmer clearly has a liking for Stratford, with 8 winners here, second only to his local course at Bangor. This relatively new outfit is making a name for itself around the smaller venues on the promise of something bigger to come.

The runners are flagged around the fences in the straight due to the low sun. Wbee [in rear] tracks the leaders before a fourth consecutive victory. 23/8/2021 Pic Steve Davies

Justin Landy’s is another small yard finding success through a couple of good horses, with the likes of Shetland Bus enjoying consistent success for the yard, now joined by eight year old Captain Cobajay, a modestly rated horse who has nevertheless been well placed to win consecutive handicap chases before the handicapper anchors him. This second victory a week after the first, in the RacingTV Profits Returned To Racing Handicap Chase shows a good return for a horse from a switch of stable in early August, so fitness clearly wasn’t the issue.

The small yard of Jake Thomas Coulson took the other handicap chase over 2m3f with a pillar to post run from Chipati under Fergus Gregory. There was plenty to like about the way this dour grey stuck his neck out to outrun Air Hair Lair and This Breac, just when those tracking the leader might have considered he’d shot his bolt.

Chapati and Fergus Gregory [grey horse] leads all the way to victory at Stratford. 23/8/2021 Pic Steve Davies

Our final winner was in the first division of the Juvenile Hurdle won by Caramelised. The less well known Sheena West, trainer of Air Hair Lair in the aforementioned handicap chase, enjoyed a successful trip to Stratford when Fred Bear outran a Skelton horse in Scots Gold. Rather like Caramelised, Fred Bear led from start to finish, and whilst finished leg-weary, which precipitated a mistake at the last, none of the others were able to get on terms and the field was strung out across Warwickshire at the line.

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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