Three weeks remain of the jumps season and as the weather hots up so too does the jockeys’ title race. Harry Skelton – who went into the day level with rival Brian Hughes on 130 winners - was at Haydock Park and celebrated a winner, while there were several pulsating finishes across the seven race card.
Racing might be continuing without spectators while COVID-19 restrictions remain in place, but we sent Nick Seddon to review the action and speak to the winners on the day …
SKELTON ENJOYING PURSUIT OF FIRST JOCKEYS’ TITLE
One of the main talking points as the season draws to a conclusion is the thrilling battle taking place for this year’s Jump Jockeys’ Championship. On a day when four time champion Richard Johnson announced his immediate retirement, the duel between Brian Hughes and Harry Skelton took another twist.
Hughes is bidding to defend the crown he won for the first time 12 months ago and he regained a narrow lead with a double at Carlisle. However, Skelton’s victory on board Vision Du Puy for trainer brother Dan in the Betway Challenger Two Mile Hurdle Series Final Handicap Hurdle ensured that the gap stands at just one winner as we head into the final three weeks of the season.
And although he’s undoubtedly growing tired of talking about it, Skelton revealed that he is still enjoying the title race. He said: “There’s a lot of hype about it, but I think it’s good for racing. It’s a position I want to be in and trying to fight it out for a championship is brilliant.
“Both myself and Brian would obviously like to be a bit further clear but it is what it is and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve got a great team behind me, everyone’s so positive and the whole team at home are buzzing for it, so it’s brilliant.
“Dan’s been unbelievable, the horses are flying and that’s a credit to the team at home - Dan is placing them well so we just keep going now. We’re all in this together, it means a lot and hopefully we’ll get there.”
WILLIAMS HOPING GOOD THINGS ARRIVE IN THREES
The Christian Williams team are rather fond of Saturdays at the moment, and having saddled Kitty’s Light to a valuable success at Kelso last week, the yard enjoyed more success here with Five Star Getaway, who was a commanding winner of the Betway Challenger Middle Distance Chase Series Final Handicap Chase.
Both Five Star Getaway and Kitty’s Light look nice types for Williams, but all eyes are undoubtedly on one horse at the moment, his Randox Grand National contender Potters Corner.
A computerised version of the 11 year old famously won last year’s ‘Virtual Grand National’, run in place of the main race in aid of NHS charities and Williams will be hoping for real-life success on Merseyside next week.
Potters Corner will school over some Grand National-style fences before heading to Aintree and Williams said: “He’s in good form and did a lovely piece of work last week, so we’re very excited. His season has been geared towards the Grand National, so fingers crossed.
“It was all about the Welsh National all of last season and it’s very much Aintree all of this season, and schooling him over a (Grand National style) fence is the last thing.
“With that type of horse he’s so laid back that it’ll probably do him good to go on a lorry and have a day out. We did it before the Welsh National and went to Henrietta Knight’s two days before, so we know it doesn’t inconvenience him.”
SNUFF BOX LEAVES IT LATE TO RECORD UNLIKELY VICTORY
There were a couple of strong candidates, but the finish of the day went to the Venetia Williams-trained Snuff Box, who pulled off the unlikeliest of victories in the Betway Veterans' Handicap Chase.
It seemed that Snuff Box was more likely to be pulled up than get his nose in front at one point, but having been matched for £281 at a high of 999-1 on the Betfair Exchange, the 10 year old began to find a second wind under Charlie Deutsch and flew home to get up in the closing strides.
Even Deutsch admitted that it took until the third fence from home until he felt he had a serious chance of winning the race. He said: “I knew there was loads left in the tank, but his jumping was so bad. I did think about pulling him up as he’d lost his confidence, but he had plenty left so I thought I’d just squeeze him along and see where we end up.
“They stopped up the straight and he’s motored home. It was the third last where I first thought he might win and I knew he had plenty there. He’s not the best jumper and just takes a bit of time at his fences, but it worked out well in the end!”
CELEBRATING MANIA EXCITED FOR AINTREE RETURN
It’s eight years now since Auroras Encore won the Grand National for a then-23 year old Ryan Mania. Although the Sue Smith team won’t have a runner in this year’s Randox Grand National, they will head there for other races in good form after sending out Small Present to victory in the Betway Challenger Stayers Hurdle Series Final Handicap Hurdle.
Small Present left it late to get his nose in front, prevailing in a photo finish, and Mania admitted that he wasn’t sure he had done enough to get his charge in front on the line.
He said: “I said the first time I rode him that they need to step up to three miles – that’s what they did and he’s been going great guns ever since. I wasn’t sure I’d got up but Nico (de Boinville) knew. He said ‘well done’ to me, but it was tight. It always felt like I was getting there, but when the line came I wasn’t so sure.
“Hopefully the handicapper can’t put us up too much for that! Harvey’s (Smith) always giving out if I win by too far, so I thought I’d tell him that I was looking after his mark!”
Mania and Smith were victorious with Vintage Clouds at last month’s Cheltenham Festival, and Mania added that he was looking forward to riding Midnight Shadow in the same colours as Small Present in next week’s Marsh Chase (registered as the Melling Chase) at Aintree’s Randox Grand National Festival.
He said: “We bypassed Cheltenham so he’s going there as a fresh horse. I was having a look at the entries and there’s obviously some really good horses, but it’s winnable. It’s not vintage and I’m really looking forward to seeing how he runs.”
TEENAGER GILLARD LOVES HAYDOCK PARK ALREADY
It’s still early days in the career of 18 year old conditional jockey Fergus Gillard, but he’s quickly showing his talent in the saddle and has built up quite a liking for Haydock Park.
Gillard has had two winners from his nine rides at the track during his career, and both have been high profile, with his first being a Grade Three success on Main Fact last November.
The teenager doubled his tally at the course this afternoon, and it was another notable success, steering the well-supported Sexy Lot to victory in the opener, the Betway Challenger Mares' Hurdle Series Final Handicap Hurdle.
The prolific five year old now has five victories this term and Gillard was delighted to be on board the mare once again, after riding her to success at Sandown Park last month.
He said: “It’s been a terrific season for her, she’s just progressed each time. It’s a nice prize for the owners - they love the horse. She’s a lovely filly and she’ll have a nice future. I’ve not had very many rides here, but the rides I’ve had have been hugely successful, so I’ve had a great bit of luck!”