It’s Easter Monday 2009 at Fairyhouse racecourse, Co. Meath. Harry Skelton, 19, is on top of the world having become the youngest-ever jockey to win the Irish Grand National aboard Niche Market for Dorset trainer Bob Buckler.
You would be forgiven in thinking that things would take off from there for the son of two-time Olympic Gold medalist in show jumping, CBE Nick Skelton. The younger Skelton’s career however, was more of a slow burn,
“The best season I had as a conditional for Paul Nicholls was 31 winners in 2009/10. It was tough from that point on to break through because I had lost my claim and wasn’t as attractable to owners, while other lads had far more big day experience than me.
“But Paul always said to me you got to be patient, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ and he was right.”
Having ridden just eight winners from 146 rides in the 2012/13 season, Skelton was in need of a lift. It would arrive when dynamic brother Dan, formerly assistant to Paul Nicholls, established a new racing yard at Lodge Hill Farms in the Warwickshire countryside.
As Dan began to build his own Rome, Harry became a stable jockey and his riding improved dramatically with 55 winners in 2014/15. He would almost double that total the following campaign. A season which would be crucial in the development of Dan Skelton Racing and his own career with the stable’s first Cheltenham Festival winner Superb Story in the 2016 County Handicap Hurdle,
“To get that first festival winner was massive and a huge relief more than anything. It was a monkey off your back almost.
“Everyone needs a break and luckily, I got it with my brother Dan. It’s hard to ride 100 winners a year but when you’ve got the ammunition to do it, you can do it you know.”
From Quantity to Quality
By 2018 the Skelton yard was a gathering storm and it would erupt in the 2018/19 season as trainer Dan publicly nominated his old boss Paul Nicholls season total of 171 winners as his next big target. He would amass a remarkable 205 winners, 183 of which were ridden by his brother who desperately went in search of a first Jumps Jockeys Championship. It wasn’t to be though, as Harry exclaims:
“It was a bit unfortunate because it had to be the time Richard Johnson rode 210 winners, so it was just the wrong year. 183 would have been enough to win three championships in the last ten years.
“It was hard for the whole stable to accomplish that though with a lot of pressure on Dan and everyone in the yard. We knew after that we had the quality coming through and you have to make these horses. We needed to concentrate on those young horses and do the best for them.”
Doing the best for them meant patience and transforming Lodge Hill Stables from a winning factory into a high-performance equine centre. None of this would be possible though without the open and honest relationship which exists between trainer and jockey,
“There is a massive family atmosphere here and everyone is very aware of that. I think the main reason for me and Dan’s success is that we are completely open with each other. Sometimes one of us won’t be right but we always strive to find the right answer for the horse,” Harry remarked.
“It is a massive asset because in other yards, a jockey may not want to say the wrong thing to a trainer, in fear it would jeopardise his job.”
Another key member of the Skelton family is Harry’s wife, Bridget Andrews. A talented jockey in her own right, who rode one of the stables quartet of Cheltenham Festival winners in the 2018 County Hurdle. Her mount being Mohaayed, a stable stalwart who tragically lost his life last Saturday at Market Rasen racecourse.
In regards to the most essential skill in jumps racing, not many yards in the UK compare with the Skelton’s when teaching a horse how to jump in the correct manner. That being no surprise with a father who represented Great Britain seven times at the Olympics in show jumping.
45 minutes of heaven and a 2020 to remember
As the world was brought to a standstill with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the Skelton train kept moving. Harry would enjoy Grade One Cheltenham success aboard Politologue in the prestigious Queen Mother Champion Chase having received a late call-up from owner John Hales,
“2020 was very hard for everyone, but for me on the riding front, thank god Cheltenham went ahead. To get on Politologue and win a Champion Chase was very special.”
Just seven years earlier, the gifted Skelton had ridden just eight winners in a season and Paul Nicholls had urged him to be patient. That patience paid off on the 5th of December last at Sandown racecourse, when the 31-year-old won two Grade One’s in the space of 45 minutes. The first for brother Dan atop Allmankind in the Henry VII Novice’s Chase and the second on old friend Politologue in the Tingle Creek. A day he will never forget:
“I grew up watching Ruby Walsh winning those kinds of races and dreaming of one day following in his footsteps. It makes all those hardships worthwhile because you work so hard for it.
“I’m delighted it did happen and it was definitely the best day of my racing career.”
Skelton has clearly developed an affinity for getting the best out of two-mile chasers, the Ferrari’s of the jumping game. Something which he describes as an enormous buzz,
“A good two-mile chaser will wear his heart on his sleeve. They are on the edge of madness almost and you are on the limit all the time. They have to be brave and the best one’s take that chance.”
The Skelton’s took that chance when changing the ethos of the stable and they have been repaid handsomely. Five winners over two days at Kempton over Christmas, included Nube Negra upsetting the mighty Altior in the Grade Two Desert Orchid Chase and Grade One success with novice Shan Blue.
Looking to the Future and the Olympics of Jumps Racing
With two months to go before starters orders, the Cheltenham Festival is the Olympics of the jumps racing calendar each year. However, for the six-time Grade One winner, the pitfalls that come with tunnel vision towards the Festival are all too apparent,
“It shouldn’t be the be all and end all because it is only four days. There are so many other good races throughout the year to be won. At the end of the day there can only be 28 winners.
“It isn’t every horse’s cup of tea and a good trainer will save the horse for a more suitable track like Aintree. I realise some owners are desperate to be at the Festival, but if it’s not going to suit your horse, there is no point in being there. You want to be winning and not there just to make up the numbers.”
With 72 winners this season, Skelton trails Brian Hughes in third in the Jockeys Championship, but on winning prize money leads the way with £608,663. A jockey’s title which has eluded him thus far, still remains a target of the Warwickshire native,
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to win it at some stage, but my main job is to ride for Dan and do the best for the business. Without him, I won’t have the success. It’s very simple.”
The Skelton’s have made winning a seamless exercise since 2013 and there is no sign of that stopping just yet. With the continued success of their new business model, it would seem a matter of when, not if Harry becomes Champion Jockey and Dan, Champion Trainer. Brothers-in-arms taking the racing world by storm.