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Cheltenham Festival Thursday report



Cheltenham Festival Thursday report

David Ord reflects on an afternoon at Cheltenham where the home team hit back – led by their new star striker.

As he waited to welcome Grey Dawning back to the winners’ enclosure following his victory in the opening Turners Novices’ Chase on Thursday, Dan Skelton was asked where this week ranked among the best of his training career to date.

“Right at the f*cking top”.

And you know what dear reader, he meant it. Little did he know just over an hour later he was to soar even higher.

Protektorat won the Ryanair Chase. A Grade One double for the handler and his jockey brother, Harry. Two winners on the card too for successful owners John Hales, Sir Alex Ferguson and Ged Mason.

Scenes of joy as the rain showers that swept in after Monmiral won the Pertemps Final for the footballing knight and Paul Nicholls, made way for the lesser-spotted blue skies.

Skelton had already trained two winners this week heading into the third day. Now it was four. His heart thumping with pride over what he and his team had achieved,

Their Festival of Festivals came off the back of news at the weekend that the long-running investigation into the sale of George Gently, somehow categorised as a “fast-track” case by the BHA, ended in a £6,000 fine for one breach of the trainers’ code of conduct in that he did not disclose to the syndicate purchasing the horse that he would financially benefit from the sale, and for one breach of the rule stating that a person must not mislead the BHA.

For the trainer he felt it was time to move on from the episode – sleep through to his alarm again – only to walk into another storm when Langer Dan became the first back-to-back winner of the Coral Cup on Wednesday.

We weren’t quite in Top Cees territory as he walked back in front of the stands but there were audible cries of derision when Skelton was called to the stewards’ room to explain the sudden transformation in the gelding’s form after four previous runs this term that had taken him back down to the same 2023 winning mark.

The closest he came on Timeform ratings to matching Wednesday’s run was a mere 35 pounds short on his final start at Newbury when he reportedly bled – treatment for ulcers apparently the spark that lit his fuse.

Skelton, like it or lump it, has emerged as the best British trainer when it comes to readying a horse for a Cheltenham handicap, bar none – and by some considerable distance. Now he’s showing the same Midas touch in the Grade Ones.

It felt a significant moment.

The British battalion this week has been significantly weakened by the hell that has been unleashed on Nicky Henderson. A dirty scope for Constitution Hill after a racecourse gallop misfire at Kempton two weeks ago has rolled and rolled into a virtual shutdown of the Seven Barrows stable.

It has meant the likes of Jonbon, Shishkin and Sir Gino have been looking over the stable doors in Lambourn rather than up the hill at Cheltenham.

This, for many years, was Nicky’s playground. It wasn’t even conceivable someone would come along like Willie Mullins and raise the bar way above Cleeve Hill.

And now Skelton is here, standing in the same hallowed number one spot, but not ready to talk about shifts in the power base or the dawning, pardon the pun, of a new era in Britain.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the coming of us,” he pondered. “We have these great horses and great owners who send them to us. At times it just comes together. I don’t know what the magic dust is, I really don’t, but what’s going on here is what we are all trying to do but it very rarely happens.

“It’s magic, I don’t know what to say, you plan to do it, why it’s happening I don’t know, it just is. It’s phenomenal. Grey Dawning won a Grade One novice, we have all that to look forward to, there’s the handicappers who you have to place right and get right on the day, but Protektorat in the Ryanair? That’s one of the holy grails. Two Grade Ones at Cheltenham… it doesn’t get any higher than this.

“It’s Cheltenham, where it matters most, and when you beat Paul, you beat Willie, you beat Nicky, you beat Henry, these are legitimate victories. It’s hard to do and we’re going to enjoy it.”

And as for the current state of play for the home team at the Festival?

“It’s not easy, we’re not having things our way and maybe we got used to having things our own way for too long. This is a sport, people have supporters, they have owners, as trainers what we have to do is knuckle down and get stuck into it. And we all are doing that,” he argued.

“It will turn, it will turn. I’m not saying it will turn all the way back, that probably wouldn’t be a good thing to have such one-sidedness ever again anyway.

“Willie by his own admission thrives on competition and we need to give him it. And all this talk of Britain v Ireland, I hate to break it to you, it’s everyone versus Willie Mullins and we need a dose of reality on that too.”

When you’re 10-3 down at half-time it’s time to send for Big Sam Allardyce and here he was, alongside a jubilant Ferguson, to welcome back their two heroes.

I don’t know what the Prestbury Cup equivalent of parking the bus is but three successive victories for the home team, a first three in the Turners and six in the Pertemps, had the scoreboard operator wheezing.

Big Sam gazed at the big screen. He couldn’t, could he?

When Teahupoo led home a one-two-three-four-five-six for Ireland in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle it seemed as though that dream died.

But then Shakem Up’Arry won the Trustatrader Plate for Harry Redknapp and Ben Pauling, Jeremy Scott’s Golden Ace a Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle that was meant to be a straight shootout between Mullins’ Jade De Grugy and Gordon Elliott’s Brighterdaysahead.

11-8 it was – 12-8 it ended as Inothewayurthinkin won the Kim Muir for Gavin Cromwell and JP McManus in the manner the market suggested he would.

Still a good day for Britain at Cheltenham. And a great one for Dan Skelton.

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