Dan Skelton is going for gold

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Dan Skelton has been one of training’s great success stories since taking out a licence in 2013. He hit the ground running with 27 winners in his first season and hasn’t looked back, reaching milestones in quick time: he broke through the million pound prize-money barrier in just his third season and doubled that in 2018/19, a campaign in which he also trained over 200 winners, and last November he sent out his 1000th winner. Talk about a meteoric rise.

A place at the top table

It was also in that 2018/19 season that Skelton had his best Festival to date when he went home with two winners from Cheltenham courtesy of Roksana in the Mares Hurdle and Ch’tibello in the County Hurdle, a race that has established Skelton’s status as one of the great “target” trainers.

It was a remarkable third win for him in the most prestigious of 2m handicaps, following on from Mohaayed in 2018 and Superby Story in 2016, the latter steered by brother Harry Skelton to give the team their first taste of Festival glory.

It may surprise some that Skelton’s Festival tally amounts to only four winners, given the sheer volume of horses he trains, but there’s a story behind the stats.

It was clear back in 2018/2019 that Skelton was very set on quantity rather than quality and after that supreme effort in 2019 to finish the season with 200 plus winners, the intentions changed, on to the next part of the plan by increasing the quality in order to take a seat at the training top table. That is where we find ourselves now when looking at the Skelton’s season so far, heading towards the Festival.

Skelton’s Festival stats

The underlying numbers are still good – Skelton’s strike-rate stands at a healthy 18% – but critically the team has enjoyed regular success in listed and graded company this season with no fewer than nine individual winners at that lofty level, from Allmankind in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree in October to Third Time Lucki in the Lightning Novices Chase at Doncaster at the end of January. And that’s despite their prized possession, My Drogo, sitting on the sidelines since December with an injury.

When it comes to Cheltenham form over the last five years Skelton has a 9% strike-rate at the track with 24 winners from 264 runners.

That statistic improves when looking at Cheltenham during this season alone where he has sent out five winners at a 15% strike-rate, which increases to 27% (four from 15) when dealing with the chasers alone.

Looking at Skelton’s Cheltenham entries, there are fingers in plenty of pies – graded races and handicaps – as he goes for gold after a clutch of silver and bronze medals from 12 months ago, including at least three horses who come back for more this time around.

Five Festival hopes

The one overriding theme with Skelton’s team is that many of his top hopes have had no more than two runs this season in preparation for Cheltenham and have been kept deliberately fresh for the occasion, such as the following five high hopes.

Skelton’s 168-rated chaser finished second in the Champion Chase 12 months ago. It was perhaps one that got away, as this year’s renewal looks an altogether different ball game, potentially one of the best fields we’ve ever seen.

However, Nube Negra, like last year, has been freshened up for the Festival, at a track where he operates extremely well: he has raced five times at Cheltenham and finished in the top three all but once, including winning the Shloer Chase (at the expense of the last two Champion Chasers) in November on good ground over course and distance.

The underfoot conditions seem key to him, as he has won three three times (from six runs) on good going, a surface that the likes of Energumene is yet to even encounter, let alone handle.

Skelton has run a few horses in this race over the years and, although he is yet to win it, he has had horses run well, including the aforementioned Nube Negra who went off the 15/8 favourite in 2018 and finished third. Too Friendly would be one of the speedier types he has had in the race and in many ways ticks a lot of the right boxes.

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Rated in the 90s on the flat when trained by George Scott, he was transferred to Skelton at the start of this season and hit the ground running with two early wins under his belt before meeting top Triumph hopes Knight Salute and Porticello at Doncaster in the Grade 2 Summit Juvenile Hurdle.

He has had a wind operation since we last saw him and the team were happy with his recent racecourse gallop in preparation for this. He should scrape in at the bottom of the weights and a strongly-run race will suit him.

Skelton has won three of the last six renewals of the County Hurdle, a remarkable record, and this year he sends the classy-but-fragile West Cork to the race.

An eight-year-old, he’s had only had seven starts and has won three of them, including the Greatwood Hurdle back in November on the Old Course off a mark of 134 and an incredible 631 days off the track. Since then he disappointed at Ascot but came back with a significant overreach and has been off the track since in preparation for this.

Skelton is confident West Cork is a graded horse but hasn’t had the opportunity to reach his potential due to injuries along the way and if that is the case then his new mark of 141 may still be on the kind side. The ground and track won’t be a concern with the only reservation coming with his time off the track since we last saw him.

Shan Blue looks set to take on one of the ‘bankers’ of the festival in Allaho, but never be afraid of one horse, so the saying goes. Skelton’s charge could easily end up going off the second-favourite, despite a curtailed campaign, having fallen on his only start at Wetherby back in October when looking to have the Charlie Hall at his mercy.

He then needed some time to recover and very much comes here on the retrieval mission and the stats do not point in his favour – he has run twice at Cheltenham and hasn’t manged to hit the frame on either occasion, and he has tried between 2m3½f to 2m6f no fewer than seven times in the past and is yet to win in that distance category.

However, having said all of that, he was given an overly-aggressive ride over the course and distance at the Festival last year and was much better than the bare result, and it says a lot that they’re sacrificing a tantalisingly tempting handicap mark (148) to roll the big dice.

The UK’s shortest-priced Gold Cup hope in the ante-post market, Protektorat remains an unknown in many ways coming into what is a wide-open race.

He will go to Cheltenham after more than 100 days off the track since his demolition job in the Grade 2 Many Clouds at Aintree (by 25 lengths), albeit in a race that rather fell apart around him.

Protektorat has finished first or second in all seven of his chase starts, and he’s unexposed given a stamina test, something of a guessing game as to whether he’ll be in his element with the Gold Cup distance, but he relaxes in his races, and there are positives aplenty as a fresh, young horse on an upward trajectory. His staying power is the £351,688 question.