Willow's Saviour seals precious moment for Dan Skelton
Sunday 22 December 2013
In the world of racing, pedigree and education are as important in man as in beast. And Dan Skelton, son of world-class showjumper and horseman Nick and former assistant to seven-times champion trainer Paul Nicholls, has clearly benefited from both.
Yesterday at Ascot he took the most significant prize since setting out on his own this season as Willow's Saviour won the £84,000 Ladbroke Hurdle. And to make victory the sweeter, the pupil beat the master; in second place was Nicholls-trained Ptit Zig.
The two horses – Willow's Saviour bottom-weight in the two-mile handicap, Ptit Zig carrying 21lb more as top-weight – swung into the straight going equally easily, but the heavy, testing conditions favoured the horse with the lesser burden, who pulled four lengths clear under a determined, positive ride from the younger Skelton sibling Harry.
Big brother and his former boss watched the contest unfold together in competitive camaradarie. "It was the first time I've won a race and he's been second," Skelton said. "And I owe him more than I can say." Nicholls, the first man through £1 million this season as he bids to regain his crown from Nicky Henderson, acknowledged his rival's burgeoning talent. "I probably taught him too well," he said, "but I'm proud of what he has done."
Since joining the 28-year-old Skelton's team in Warwickshire in October, Willow's Saviour has improved markedly and has now won three from three. Yesterday's victory was sealed as he responded readily to his rider's demand for a slick, fluent leap off a perfect stride at the last. The significance of the success – the young trainer's 15th, at a respectable strike-rate of 18 per cent – was not lost on the younger brother. "We've had a dream start," he said, "and one man we do have to thank is our dad.
"We wouldn't be here without him and if I can make my kids as proud of me as we are of him I'll be a happy man." Skelton senior, winner of Olympic showjumping gold last year at the age of 54, missed the Ascot moment, otherwise engaged at the Olympia horse show.
However meritorious any performance produced by a marathon hurdler these days, praise will always be delivered with a telling selection of conjunctions. Reve De Sivola won his second successive Long Walk Hurdle, outjumping, outstaying and outgutsing his rivals. But the division is still overshadowed by Nicholls-trained Big Bucks, despite the peerless one being absent for more than a year. And it is hard to forget the contempt with which he treated yesterday's winner on his most recent public appearance. Unless something goes horribly wrong when Big Bucks, winner of his last 18 races, returns to action at Cheltenham next month, the rest of the staying division – however good – will once again be playing for second place in the World Hurdle at the Festival in March.
Reve De Sivola, who had taken another Grade 1 prize in France last month, relishes gruelling conditions and left his rivals, headed by the Nicholls candidate Salubrious, floundering as Richard Johnson turned the screw from the front. The favourite At Fishers Cross, perceived as a rising star, was disappointing, jumping badly before decanting Tony McCoy at the last.
Following the spectre of Big Bucks, some ghosts of Christmas past may be raised at Kempton this week. The 63rd running of the William Hill King George VI Chase on Boxing Day can go to Al Ferof, who is grey, like the four-time winner Desert Orchid, and trained by Nicholls, like record five-time hero Kauto Star.
There was sad news of another grey, the Welsh Grand National hope Silver By Nature, which was fatally injured when breaking a hind leg on the gallops at Lucinda Russell's stables in Scotland yesterday.
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