Skelton Takes Trainers' Championship Lead As Brits Fight Back

Grey Dawning returns in triumph |


CHELTENHAM, UK–St Patrick's Thursday at the 2024 Cheltenham Festival could turn out to be a pivotal day in the career of Dan Skelton, with the prize-money pocketed by his two winners–taking his overall tally for the week to four–seeing him leapfrog his long-time mentor Paul Nicholls in the battle to be crowned champion trainer in Britain.

Skelton had been the one man to put up any resistance to the Irish on Wednesday's card when winning the Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle with Langer Dan (Ire) (Ocovango {GB}) and the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase with Unexpected Party (Fr) (Martaline {GB}). Those two wins took Skelton's career tally at the Festival to eight, no mean feat for a trainer in just his eleventh full season with a licence.

It's days like this one which Skelton has been longing for, though. Few would argue that he's one of the best around when it comes to priming a horse for a Festival handicap, but in the Grade 1 races at the meeting, the contests every trainer wants to be involved in, he'd been resigned to little more than a bit-part role in his career thus far.

That was until the Turners Novices' Chase which kicked off Thursday's card, featuring the best novices chasers over an intermediate trip that Britain and Ireland had to offer and a sparkling winner in Grey Dawning (Ire). He gained his first win at the top level at the expense of Ginny's Destiny (Ire) (Yeats {Ire}) and Djelo (Fr) (Montmartre {Fr}), with a shocking turn of events seeing the home team complete a clean sweep of the podium places having trailed the Irish 10-3 on the scoreboard after the first two days.

With the trainers' championship on the line, it won't have been lost on Skelton that the runner-up was trained by Nicholls, the 14-time champion to whom he was assistant during the glory years when the Ditcheat stable won three successive renewals of the Cheltenham Gold Cup courtesy of Kauto Star (2007 and 2009) and Denman (2008).

Now, Skelton has his sights set on Nicholls's crown, not to mention the 2025 Gold Cup with the dashing Grey Dawning, a son of the late Flemensfirth–Coolmore's dual champion National Hunt sire who has already produced one Gold Cup winner in Imperial Commander (Ire), the horse who memorably toppled Kauto Star and Denman in 2010.

“He's a lovely horse, isn't he?” Skelton said of Grey Dawning. “We had such hopes for him. When you go and win two bumpers at the start of your life and you're destined to be a chaser, you just want it to happen. To win a Grade 1 novice here is great. It gives us all that future to look forward to and, being that colour [grey], he might get a following.”

Bred at Grange Stud, Grey Dawning was bought for €40,000 at the Tattersalls Ireland June Derby Sale as a three-year-old and now carries the colours of Robert Kirkland, no doubt at the envy of John Hales. After all, nobody covets a top-class jumping grey quite like Hales, the proud owner of star performers in that image such as Al Ferof (Fr), Neptune Collonges (Fr), Politologue (Fr) and, of course, his beloved One Man (Ire).

It remains Hales's dream to win the Gold Cup, one of the few major steeplechases in Britain to have eluded him, and it was that lifetime ambition which fuelled his decision to partner with Sir Alex Ferguson, Ged Mason and Peter Done in the €740,000 purchase of the exciting Caldwell Potter (Fr) (Martaline {GB}) at last month's Caldwell Construction Dispersal at Tattersalls Ireland.

The fact Caldwell Potter was grey might also have had something to do with it, though Hales hasn't been afraid to diversify his interests, as the two races which followed Grey Dawning's victory in the Turners showed.

Envy quickly turned to joy for Hales as his own yellow colours with a red star were first carried to victory in the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle by the black Monmiral (Fr) and then in the G1 Ryanair Chase by the bay Protektorat (Fr), who was gaining a deserved first success at the Festival having finished third in 2022 and fifth in 2023 when bidding to deliver his owner's Gold Cup dream.

The victory of the Nicholls-trained Monmiral was a timely reminder that he won't be giving up his champion trainer crown without a fight, but Protektorat's defeat of defending Ryanair champion Envoi Allen (Fr) (Muhtathir {GB}) was enough to take Skelton to the top of the current standings. Master and apprentice look set to be locked in a titanic battle for the rest of the season, but on St Patrick's Thursday they combined to provide a red-letter day for Hales, plus fellow owners Ferguson and Mason.

“I've been in racing now for 25 years and it's the first time I've ever done a double at Cheltenham,” said an elated Hales. “To win once is a privilege; to do it twice is just unbelievable. He [Protektorat] was brilliant today and I can't speak highly enough of the two trainers and our two winners, because they are a dream come true.”

The dream run Ferguson and Mason have enjoyed in recent months shows no signs of slowing down. Thursday's double follows hot on the heels of two notable Flat wins on the international stage with Ferguson's progressive homebred Spirit Dancer (GB) (Frankel {GB}), successful in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia from his last three starts.

Not to be outdone, Ferguson's former sparring partner in the Premier League managerial ranks, Harry Redknapp, was also among the owners celebrating on St Patrick's Thursday after the Ben Pauling-trained Shakem Up'Arry (Ire) had run out an emphatic winner of the TrustATrader Plate Handicap Chase.

“To have a winner at the Cheltenham Festival has been my dream,” said Redknapp before being asked about his relationship with Ferguson. “Me and Alex have had some great days,” he added. “Going to Old Trafford I used to go in his office at 2.15pm when the teams had been sent out and we would then watch a bit of racing for 15 minutes. We both loved the racing and we both loved the football. It is great to see him have two winners today.”

The win of Shakem Up'Arry was a third at the meeting for Flemensfirth after those of Ballyburn (Ire) and Grey Dawning, putting him one ahead of Haras de la Tuilerie stalwart Saint Des Saints (Fr), who was responsible for both Monmiral and Protektorat. Already that pair have at least matched the feat of Shantou last year when he was the only stallion to sire more than one winner at the meeting.

Elsewhere, Kapgarde (Fr) was expected to open his account at the 2024 Festival when his impeccably-bred daughter Brighterdaysahead (Fr) lined up as the odds-on favourite for the G2 Ryanair Mares' Novices' Hurdle, trying to add another illustrious chapter to the tale of Francois-Marie Cottin's brilliant broodmare Matnie (Fr) (Laveron {GB}).

Already the dam of five Graded winners from as many foals, including the multiple Grade 1 hero Mighty Potter (Fr) (Martaline {Fr}) and the aforementioned Caldwell Potter, Matnie looked to have produced another star in the shape of Brighterdaysahead, who came into the race unbeaten in five starts under Rules having been bought by Gordon Elliott for €310,000 at the Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale as a three-year-old.

This time, however, Brighterdaysahead was forced to settle for the runner-up spot as she was unable to match the turn of foot shown by Jeremy Scott's Flat-bred winner, Golden Ace (GB). She was making it five on the day for Britain and became a first Festival winner for Golden Horn (GB), the G1 Derby and G1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe hero who relocated to Overbury Stud to stand his first season as a National Hunt sire in 2023.

Golden Ace is out of the Listed-winning Dubawi (Ire) mare Deuce Again (GB) but made only 12,000gns when selling as an unraced three-year-old at the Tattersalls July Sale. Yet to taste defeat in three starts over hurdles, Golden Ace is proving quite the bargain for owner Ian Gosden, not to mention a flagbearer for Scott.

He was celebrating a first Festival success following a couple of near-misses in a training career spanning more than two decades, notably with Dashel Drasher (GB) (Passing Glance {GB}) in last year's G1 Paddy Power Stayers' Hurdle.

“It's an emotional moment,” said Scott. “I thought last year coming second with dear old Dashel Drasher was something, but this is very, very, very special. I'm so thrilled for the yard and for my family, who are all involved. It's a super moment.”

Dashel Drasher could manage only eighth in the latest edition of the Stayers' Hurdle behind old rival Teahupoo (Fr) (Masked Marvel {GB}), who finished a controversial third in 2023 having met late interference at the hands of the runner-up. The stewards on the day promoted Teahupoo to second before Dashel Drasher was reinstated on appeal.

This year it was all rather routine for Teahupoo, who gradually asserted after being produced to lead on the approach to the last, always doing enough from there to land the spoils by three and three-quarter lengths from the 2021 and 2022 winner Flooring Porter (Ire) (Yeats {Ire}).

Knocking on the door earlier in the week and again with Brighterdaysahead in the Dawn Run, Elliott cut a relieved figure afterwards, safe in the knowledge that he won't be leaving Cheltenham empty-handed.

“It's just great to get a winner–we've hit the crossbar all week,” Elliott summed up. “The horses are running well and there are no excuses and no hard-luck stories either, but to win the Stayers' Hurdle is just unbelievable. It's been a long couple of days, but no horse didn't win that should have won. We've one on the board now, so we are happy.”

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