Cheltenham: Dan Skelton hoping patient approach pays off for Protektorat as he faces strong Irish challenge in the Boodles Gold Cup

DAN Skelton knows what it is required to train a Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup winner. He was assistant to Paul Nicholls when Kauto Star and Denman – two of the all-time greats – were galloping into the history books.

Protektorat ridden by Harry Skelton carries the hopes of Sir Alex Ferguson in today's Boodles Cheltenham Hold Cup.
Protektorat ridden by Harry Skelton carries the hopes of Sir Alex Ferguson in today's Boodles Cheltenham Hold Cup.

Now Skelton has a chance to train a Gold Cup-winner in his own right when Protektorat, the mount of his younger brother Harry, the current champion jockey, lines up in today’s blue riband race against a formidably strong Irish challenge.

The horse is co-owned by, amongst others, legendary football manager Sir Alex Ferguson who views the Gold Cup as the ultimate race and John Hales whose leg-weary One Man failed twice to climb the Cheltenham hill to greatness.

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But Skelton – son of Olympic showjumping legend Nick – is bristling with anticipation after giving the progressive horse a long lay-off ahead of today’s date with destiny.

Protektorat is the leading British hope in today's Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Protektorat was one of three Grade One winners for the aforementioned Ferguson on the opening day of last year’s National meeting at Aintree.

The chaser was subsequently second to Sue and Harvey Smith’s ill-fated Midnight Shadow in last November’s Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

Protektorat was then a wide-margin winner of Aintree’s Many Clouds Chase last December when he had 25 lengths in hand over former Gold Cup winner Native River who has since been retired.

Whether this form is good enough to beat the likes of reigning champion Minella Indo, 2019 and 2020 Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo, Rachael Blackmore’s mount A Plus Tard and the Davy Russell-ridden Galvin remains to be seen.

But 36-year-old Skelton’s ambition is matched by his passion. “I’d love to win a Gold Cup. I think the Gold Cup is the pinnacle of our sport and it is the one that says you had the best horse on the day at the biggest track and everyone was watching,” says the trainer.

“The Gold Cup does just have that aura about it A Gold Cup-winning rider or trainer – if you can say that then not everyone can.

“The more I do this job the more level I become as you can’t have catastrophic highs and depressing lows. If he goes there and gives it his all and finishes third he has done his best. If he goes there and wins and it is meant to be then great.

“I’ll be distraught if he goes and finishes eighth and never looks threatening – that would be disappointing.”

Skelton also explained why Protektorat has not raced since last December. “We made the decision in our own heads after Aintree that we would wait for the Gold Cup,” he explained.

“Of The Festival winners I’ve had, only one has run in the same calendar year and that was Roksana who needed a run to get ready.

“The other three winners I’ve had at Cheltenham (Festival) never ran in the same calendar year. I think you have them prepared for it.”

However Skelton is pleasantly surprised at how Protektorat has developed – the horse is still only seven years of age.

“We always thought he would develop into a three-mile chaser but I’m genuinely surprised that he is the shortest priced English horse in the Gold Cup at this stage of his life,” he reflected at his Warwickshire stables that have become a powerhouse of British jump racing in the past decade.

“As a juvenile he was a complete waste of time. Harry (Skelton) fell off him on his first start in the UK. It feels like it has been a long road since then but it has got better and better. He has grown and matured. He has just got the hang of things. It has shown if you give them time you can go the right route.

“When I worked for Paul (Nicholls) you had Kauto Star, who would look impressive every day and was fantastic on the gallops. He was exuberant at what he did. He showed off.

“Then you had Denman who was a totally different type of horse. He didn’t have the natural pace of Kauto Star in that his work was work, whereas Kauto Star it was all graceful and easy. This horse is a grafter. He doesn’t show off in his work.

“He puts his head down and his knees come up which gives me positive thoughts for the Gold Cup. He won’t mind getting dirty seeing it out. If it turns into one of those gritty Gold Cups, I won’t be afraid of having him there.”

Meanwhile Yorkshire interest on the Festival’s final day rests with Leyburn trainer Ann Duffield’s The Real Whacker in the Grade One Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle and Malton trainer Brian Ellison’s Cormier in the County Hall – Cormier wil get a £100,000 bonus if he wins under Sean Quinlan following his recent win in Kelso’s Morebattle Hurdle.