Nicholls protégé Skelton ready to test own mettle

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The Independent Online

A changing of the guard at Ditcheat is not confined to the horses. With Kauto Star retired, and Big Buck's injured, yesterday it emerged that Dan Skelton, assistant to Paul Nicholls throughout his reign as champion trainer, will leave at the end of the season in order to join the competition. He will be following the lead of Harry Fry, who supervised a satellite yard for Nicholls until prompted by the Champion Hurdle success of Rock On Ruby last season to take out a licence in his own right.

Skelton leaves Somerset with the blessing of his employer over the past nine seasons. "I obviously wish Dan all the best in the future," Nicholls said in his Betfair blog. "He is a great friend above all else, and I am incredibly proud to have played a part in Harry and Dan's progression to the training ranks."

Skelton responded in a similar vein. "I will be leaving a great team, and a great boss who, at the age of 19, welcomed me into full-time employment and the full-time excitement of National Hunt Racing," he said. "Paul showed great confidence and faith when taking me on as assistant, with no experience, and has nurtured me into the person and professional that I am today. I am very excited about the future and hope I can do justice to the training and education I have received from Paul."

Planning permission has already been obtained for stabling and a steep all-weather gallop on the Warwickshire farm of Skelton's showjumping father, Nick. Nicholls added that Tom Jonason, pupil assistant for the last three years, would take over Skelton's role at the end of the season.

Long Run, Kauto Star's old rival, may be fitted with cheekpieces when he attempts to regain the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup in March. Robert Waley-Cohen, his owner, describes the idea as "definitely under serious consideration" – even though Long Run won his second King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. It is possible that an experiment might first be made in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury next month.

Long Run's trainer, Nicky Henderson, is anxiously hoping that Cheltenham will, meanwhile, be released from winter's grip in time for Bobs Worth and Sprinter Sacre to have their Festival rehearsals there on Saturday.

None of yesterday's meetings survived, and inspections have been called for both the all-weather cards, at Kempton and Wolverhampton, today – but hope lingers that the jumps programme could resume at Ayr on Wednesday.

Turf Account

CHRIS McGRATH'S NAP: Cardinal (2.35 Wolverhampton)

On a fair mark again and shaped as though poised to take advantage at this course last time, just unable to reel in front two after travelling nicely.

NEXT BEST: Alborz (3.05 Wolverhampton)

Has done well for Tim Vaughan, improving over hurdles, and likely to relish this new distance on the Flat.

ONE TO WATCH: Fire In Babylon (Noel Quinlan) looks well treated for his new, in-form stable and signalled a revival when finishing well for third at Kempton last week.

WHERE THE MONEY'S GOING: Un Atout, impressive at Naas on Saturday, is 6-1 from 8-1 with Coral for the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.