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How the Skelton brothers sparked a British revival at Cheltenham Festival

Harry and Dan Skelton made it four wins at the Festival after winning the Ryanair Steeple Chase  (David Davies for The Jockey Club/PA Wire)
Harry and Dan Skelton made it four wins at the Festival after winning the Ryanair Steeple Chase (David Davies for The Jockey Club/PA Wire)

After two days of Irish dominance, Great Britain’s jockeys and trainers fought back on the ironically named St. Patrick’s Thursday at the Cheltenham Festival with five wins from the seven races.

Mainly through the skills of Paul Townend and Rachael Blackmore, coupled with the talent of trainer Willie Mullins, the Irish contingent had won the better of the opening two days, taking 10 of the 13 races, yet there were signs of a possible British challenge with a double win for the Skelton brothers, Harry and Dan, on Wednesday.

It was the same duo that led the British revival on Thursday with two wins from the first three races that caused plenty of excitement with the punters as well as former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson who witnessed his first winners at the Festival as a racehorse owner.

Irish trainer Gordon Elliott constrained the British fervour, and broke his duck at this year’s Festival, with a fine victory for Teahupoo in the Stayers’ Hurdle and sets up an intriguing battle of trainers ahead of tomorrow’s Gold Cup.

Protektorat, ridden by Harry Skelton, triumphed in the Ryanair Steeple Chase (David Davies for The Jockey Club/PA Wire)
Protektorat, ridden by Harry Skelton, triumphed in the Ryanair Steeple Chase (David Davies for The Jockey Club/PA Wire)

Britain’s resurgence was evident in the opening race as the top three runners all hailed from this side of the Irish Sea. Paul Nicholls had played up Ginny’s Destiny’s chances for most of the week and it looked as though his prediction of victory would come true.

Harry Cobden took the gelding out into the front and kept him there to set the pace. At the turn for home, he kicked on hoping to move away from Djelo in second and Harry Skelton’s Grey Dawning in third. Djelo crumbled but Grey Dawning found another level and leapt over the last with a skip in his step to secure the Skelton’s their third win of the week.

Nicholls and Cobden were then rewarded in the next race after a brilliant run from Monmiral, a horse owned by Sir Alex. Held in the middle of the field, he came alive on the final straight and pipped Kyntara to the line to earn Ferguson a first win at the Festival in 20 years.

Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates his horse Monmiral winning the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle (Mike Egerton/PA Wire)
Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates his horse Monmiral winning the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle (Mike Egerton/PA Wire)

The third British winner in as many races came in the Ryanair Steeple Chase as Harry Skelton held Protektorat, another horse owned by Ferguson, in third stalking the two front runners Stage Star and Ahoy Senior who challenged for the lead. Behind them, Blackmore poised ready to make her move with the favourite: Envoi Allen.

Stage Star led with three to go but fell away as the stronger horses swept to the front. Protektorat jumping the second to last in first place and sending the watching crowd into a frenzy. Envoi Allen responded and by the time both cleared the final jump it was anyone’s race to win. Blackmore whipped her mount, Skelton heeled his own and the British horse responded immediately. He hit the hill to the finish at a fair lick and held off Envoi Allen’s late surge to win by a couple of lengths.

"I’ve been waiting 20 years for a winner and now I’ve had two in about 40 minutes," joked Ferguson in an interview with ITV after the race. "It’s incredible. It’s the FA Cup final, Derby then it’s Cheltenham. Is winning the Champions League or Cheltenham a better feeling? This is much better - now."

Jack Kennedy and Teahupoo were one of just two Irish winners after their Stayers’ Hurdle victory (Adam Davy/PA Wire)
Jack Kennedy and Teahupoo were one of just two Irish winners after their Stayers’ Hurdle victory (Adam Davy/PA Wire)

Yet Ferguson wasn’t the only footballing icon to celebrate on the day as Harry Redknapp’s horse, Shakem Up’Arry, triumphed in the TrustATrader Plate at outside odds of 8-1 in what was the fourth British winner of the day. Golden Ace then made it five by beating Elliott’s favourite Brighterdaysahead in the penultimate race.

All eyes now look to tomorrow and the showpiece race: the Gold Cup. Last year’s winner Galopin de Champs will set off as the overwhelming favourite but he is not a guarantee that will make punters flock to the nearest bookmaker. The Willie Mullins-trained horse followed last year’s win with successive defeats in the Punchestown Gold Cup and John Durkan Memorial Chase at the same course to fellow Gold Cup contender Fastorslow before making it consecutive wins in the Irish Gold Cup against his main rival.

Perhaps this is a horse who saves his best for the premium races and if that’s the case, can anyone beat him tomorrow?

Fastorslow will lead the challengers that also feature Paul Nicholl’s Bravemansgame, who finished second here in 2023, while Lucinda Russell’s Grand National winner, Corach Rambler, can’t be discounted. Gordon Elliott’s only representative is Gerri Colombe but he was well beaten by Galopin Des Champs in the Savills Chase over Christmas and may be outclassed.

The Festival has been building to this and the Gold Cup is set to be a fantastic conclusion to an incredible week.