Watch Out For Contenders For the 2021-22 Jockeys’ Title Over Our Summer Fixtures

We saw a fantastic tussle between defending champion Brian Hughes and Harry Skelton for the 2020/21 National Hunt Jockeys’ Championship, with the latter coming out on top for the first time. Some of the key moments took place at Stratford earlier this Spring behind closed doors. All the main contenders for the title next season are likely to appear regularly here, so Stratford is going to be an important track for them as they look to assert a lead over the summer and autumn. Here is a look at the main contenders.

Harry Skelton

Harry Skelton, a first time winner of the Champion Jockeys’ Trophy for the 2020-21 season

Skelton finished last season incredibly strongly to get his hands on the trophy on the final day of the campaign at Sandown. The brother of trainer Dan Skelton said it was a ‘dream come true’ to win the trophy.

The majority of Skelton’s winners last season came from his brother. However, he also partnered a number of Paul Nicholls’ horses in March and April which proved really helpful in his battle with Hughes.

Skelton is 11/10 in horse racing betting to defend his title, and tops the betting for the first time in his career. If he has the same hunger and drive as he showed in the final months of the 2020/21 campaign, he is sure to have another strong chance, especially with the support he gets from the Lodge Hill yard.

The defending champion is a regular at Stratford as this is his local track. With 31 winners at this course over the last five years, no jockey has enjoyed more success here than Skelton.

Brian Hughes

Hughes will be keen to win back his championship and he should once again be in the mix in the closing stages of the season. The 2019/20 champion has a lot of success in the north, in particular, where he is the go-to man for many trainers.

When he was successful in 2020, Hughes was the first northern-based jockey to lift the trophy since Jonjo O’Neill in 1980. The Irishman is not afraid to rack up the miles in pursuit of the championship. Expect to see Hughes appear at the majority of Stratford’s meetings over the next 11 months. He has had 17 winners from his 66 rides here over the last five years.

Harry Cobden

11-time Grade One winner Harry Cobden was very much in contention for the title last season until he picked up a cheekbone fracture which ruled him out the final six weeks of the campaign.

Harry Cobden carries the backing of the Champion Trainer which puts him bang in contention

Cobden is a very talented rider who is now retained by Champion trainer Nicholls. He is sure to partner a lot of top-class horses next season and given the size of Manor Farm stable, there should be no shortage of rides either.

The 22-year-old has been improving his number of winners with each season. If he is able to stay injury-free from now until April, he will have a big chance of landing his maiden title. It was an injury that put paid to his chances last season.

It’s going to be an exciting title race to follow this season, particularly when all three of the above jockeys appear at Stratford over the coming months.

Stratford Specialists Trained in Locally Could Be Horses to Follow Next Season

Stratford is perhaps better known for its Hunter Chase fixture and competitive summer cards. But did you know that this past National Hunt season the track by the River Avon had a horse running at it who went on to be placed in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle?

The Cheltenham Festival seems a world apart, yet the link between the premier jumps meeting of the year and Stratford is there for all to see. For Pleasure, trained some 25-30 miles east of the track on the Edgcote Gallops made famous by horses like L’Escargot, near the border between Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire by Alex Hales, ran twice and won both times here earlier in the campaign.

Edgcote trainer Alex Hales

A very headstrong gelding by Excelebration, For Pleasure is a keen going sort but that did not stop him progressing from winning a Stratford handicap off 107 in July into a graded performer. Via another handicap win at Bangor, he returned to the track and completed his hat-trick.

For Pleasure’s regular jockey Harry Bannister got no pleasure in trying to steer him right-handed in a Listed race at Kempton. He forfeited alarming amounts of ground rounding the home turn and lost all chance of keeping his winning streak going.

However, once back on a track configured anti-clockwise like Cheltenham, For Pleasure showed his Stratford successes were no fluke. He won one of the official trials for the Supreme, the Grade 2 Sharp Novices’ Hurdle at the November Meeting.

An all-the-way victory there helped For Pleasure achieve a peak hurdles rating of 145. Although he couldn’t win at Newbury off that in graded handicap company, he still had enough left to hang on for third in the Supreme.

While For Pleasure was no match for Appreciate It at Cheltenham, and would have finished out of the frame if Blue Lord hadn’t fallen at the final flight. He was the best of the British horses in the race, reversing Newbury form with Soaring Glory. If he could just learn to settle, then Hales would have a very useful talent to train.

Even more local to Stratford are the Alcester stables of Dan Skelton. Younger brother Harry was crowned Champion Jockey for the first time in his career this past season, and they made the nine-mile trip southeast for eight of his winning rides.

Two of those Stratford victories came aboard Stepney Causeway, a horse who looks very much on the up. With improvers like this to ride, it’s no wonder that Skelton is 11/8 in the horse racing betting for a successful defence of his National Hunt Jockeys’ Championship for 2021-22.

Stepney Causeway helps Harry Skelton to win his first Jockeys' title in March 2021
Stepney Causeway helps Harry Skelton to win his first Jockeys’ title in March 2021

The progress made by Stepney Causeway in the short time he has been in the Skelton stable after joining from Flat trainer Michael Bell in January is quite remarkable. He won three times in March, including those back-to-back hurdle wins around Stratford in the space of a fortnight.

From there, Stepney Causeway went up to Ayr in April and scored for a fourth time in five starts for Skelton during the Scottish Grand National meeting. He has earned some ante-post quotes for next year’s Arkle, should his connections decide to switch him to fences.

Running at their local track has helped both Stepney Causeway and For Pleasure on their career path so far. It may well be worth following these Stratford success stories when the jumps season returns to the big stage in the autumn as a result.

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 racingtv.com 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.

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