Junior Skelton takes first step into spotlight

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The Independent Online

If heredity and environment are significant, which they are supposed to be in racing, then it should be no surprise that 19-year-old Harry Skelton is doing what he is. His father Nick is one of the outstanding showjumpers of his generation; his five-years-older brother Dan is one of Paul Nicholls' right-hand men. On Saturday at Ascot the youngest Skelton, one of the promising Manor Farm apprentices, stepped forward into the spotlight for the first time with his most significant career victory yet on Niche Market in the three-mile handicap chase.

Though the seven-year-old gelding is trained by Bob Buckler, and Nicholls' contender Gungadu could finish only eighth, there was no disguising big brother's delight at his sibling's success. "Dad has always been into racing," he said, "as have I, but we're not exactly built as jockeys. But Harry is, and he's living the family dream."

The family's crossover between coloured poles and birch is firmly established. Skelton pere had the smart chaser Certainly Strong with David Nicholson during the 1990s. John Hales, whose yellow colours have been carried with distinction by Nicholls-trained Azertyuiop, Noland and Neptune Collonges, is also owner of the superlative showjumper Arko, ridden by Nick to countless international victories.

Niche Market's victory was narrow – it was by only a head he repelled Monkerhostin – but came largely thanks to his rider's judge of pace and initiative. Skelton kicked clear more than half a mile out and the advantage he pinched was enough, just, to see him home. "The horse is basically slow," he said. "All he does is jump and gallop, so I decided to kick on and take the race to the others."

Skelton grew up on showjumpers but soon decided that speed was the better buzz. "When I was about 14 I went to ride out for Reg Hollinshead," he said. "I got run off with on the first day, loved it, and that was it.

"I went to Richard Hannon, but I got to heavy for the Flat. But I was lucky to be there; I've been involved with so many good people all the way along. And still have. Paul gives me great opportunities and is so fair; if you do something wrong you learn, you get up, and go forward."

Skelton joined Nicholls' team three years ago and Niche Market was his 27th success. The significance of a win on a high-profile Saturday was not lost on him and his delight was beamingly apparent. "Unbelievable," he said. "This is what you do it for. This is what you dream of when you start out."

After last night's Manor Farm Christmas party, it will be back to more mundane business at Hereford today, on an afternoon when Dad will be competing at the Olympia horse show in London. "He supports me 110 per cent," said Skelton, "but he's the first to bollock me if I fall off. But then he's entitled to; he's jumped a lot of fences in his time." Skelton has sat on now-retired Arko, as well as top-class racehorses. The feel is different – simplistically, showjumpers are rear-engined, steeplechasers engage more of a four-wheel drive – but one thing is the same. "The best horses are the most intelligent," he said. "They're always thinking about what they're doing. And they know they're good."

Last week Skelton rode Twist Magic, Master Minded and Denman up the gallop. "Not a bad way to spend a Wednesday morning," he said. "I couldn't imagine being anywhere better in the world." Denman, close to a return to action since recovering from an irregular heartbeat, has been entered in a hurdle race at Wincanton on Boxing Day, 15 minutes after stablemate Kauto Star runs in the King George VI Chase at Kempton. "His health is good and he's where we want him," said Dan Skelton yesterday, "but it's only an entry and we'll decide on Tuesday."