DAN SKELTON returns to the scene of his greatest triumph when he saddles the well-regarded Shelford in The Ladbroke at Ascot today.
The rising star of the training ranks landed the corresponding contest 12 months ago with Willow’s Saviour and has high hopes of replicating the success in this fiercely-competitive £150,000 race.
Skelton, the son of Olympic gold medal-winning showjumper Nick, has not looked back since making a successful switch to the training ranks after serving a nine-year apprenticeship under the watchful tutelage of Paul Nicholls.
Both were instrumental in the careers of National Hunt greats like Kauto Star, Denman, Big Buck’s and Neptune Collonges before Skelton set up his own yard 18 months ago with the assistance of his younger brother Harry who is stable jockey – and the backing of their famous father.
After training 27 winners last season, including Willow’s Saviour, Skelton has already recorded 36 winners in the current campaign including Shelford, who heads to Ascot on the back of two triumphs at Chepstow.
The most recent success saw Shelford beat Aubusson, who lines up in today’s three-mile Long Walk Hurdle on the back of a fine win at Haydock on Betfair Chase day.
“I think I have him where I want him. While he can be a bit quirky at home, he doesn’t show that on the track, and he loves to get his toe into the ground,” said Skelton.
“I’m not surprised to see money for him, although he’ll need to carry on improving if he’s to win.”
Ironically the horse likely to pose the biggest threat to Shelford is Activial whose young trainer, Harry Fry, worked alongside Skelton at the Nicholls academy.
Fry became a trainer following Rock On Ruby’s Champion Hurdle win in 2012 and has always held Activial in the highest regard after the four-year-old ran away with Adonis Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton in February.
He fluffed his lines on his only subsequent start on a sounder surface at Aintree in April, but should find conditions more to his liking.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with him at home. The more rain we get, the better,” said Fry who remains buoyed by Rock On Ruby’s comeback win in Cheltenham’s Relkeel Hurdle last weekend.
“You don’t get too many chances to run in races like this off a lower weight, hence we’ve held him back. He’s only four and he was always going to improve over the summer, and that’s exactly what he’s done.
“It’s a hugely competitive handicap, but this has been the plan since he wasn’t quite going to be ready in time for the Greatwood at Cheltenham in November.
“It’s still a very big ask as well for a four-year-old only having his fourth start over hurdles in public but we’re pleased with him at home and looking forward to it.”
The 19 runners also include Jonjo O’Neill’s Goodwood Mirage, who has not raced since providing AP McCoy with his 150th win of the current campaign at Wetherby in mid-October.
Houblon Des Obeaux attempts to repeat last year’s success in the Mappin & Webb Silver Cup Handicap Chase on the back of an excellent display in the Hennessy Gold Cup.
Despite top weight, only Many Clouds was too good for Venetia Williams’s classy performer who lines up today on a 9lb higher mark compared to 12 months ago.
“He’s come out of the race well. Obviously he’s got to shoulder top weight again which always makes things tough, but he has come out of Newbury in good shape,” said Williams.
Paul Nicholls is prepared to bide his time with Ptit Zig after his rising star completed a hat-trick of wins over the larger obstacles by winning yesterday’s Mitie Novices’ Chase at Ascot by nine lengths from the well-regarded Josses Hill.
Though the horse, ridden with confidence by in-form Sam Twiston-Davies, will hold an entry for the two-mile Arkle Trophy and the longer JLT Novices Chase a Cheltenham in March, Nicholls has suggested that he might bypass the National Hunt Festival altogether.
“He’s a proper horse. He won his Grade One in France last year and ran well in a Champion Hurdle and ran well at Aintree, but he’s not that pacey a horse,” he ventured. “We couldn’t run him in anything else, really, because of his handicap rating. We’ve always looked for him to go chasing”.
“He is only five and he has so much improvement to come, physically and mentally.
“He will be entered in a two or two-and-half-mile race, but you wouldn’t want to run him over two on fast ground.
“Everyone goes on about Cheltenham, but it is not the be all and end all. There are plenty of races. Next season he could go anywhere. I haven’t thought beyond (yesterday). He might have one more run and then have a break.”