Skelton gambles on fresh approach to stem flow of Irish winners at Cheltenham

Nube Negra (left) is a dark horse in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.Nube Negra (left) is a dark horse in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Ireland’s dominance at the festival meeting last year clearly dented the pride of leading British trainers. Dan Skelton is doing all he can to maximise the potential of his runners at the meeting as he prepares one of his strongest ever teams. He has gained his best results at Cheltenham with horses who have not raced in the weeks leading up to the meeting. Skelton firmly believes that most horses benefit from arriving fresh for the championship races.

Protektorat, Shan Blue and Nube Negra are among those going to Cheltenham without a race so far this year. They will all tackle Grade 1 races at the festival while Greatwood Hurdle winner West Cork has been freshened up for the County Hurdle.

Nube Negra underestimated in Queen Mother Champion Chase

The form of Queen Mother Champion chase hope Nube Negra seems to illustrate Skelton’s point. He defeated Altior in the 2020 Desert Orchid Chase after a 323-day absence. Eighty days’ later he was beaten only half a length in the Champion Chase with odds-on favourite Chacun Pour Soi a length behind him in third. The following month he ran well below form when beaten 25 lengths into third behind Chacun Pour Soi at Punchestown. 

He did not reappear until 201 days later at Cheltenham in November when impressively beating Politologue and reversing Champion Chase form with Put The Kettle On. Three weeks’ later he ran a lifeless fourth of five behind Greaneteen in the Tingle Creek at Sandown. It’s easy to see why Skelton has given Nube Negra a break since and rates him a good each-way bet at 10-1.

The case for running Protektorat after a lay-off is not quite so compelling as his 25 lengths win at Aintree came only three weeks’ after finishing second at Cheltenham. That was in the Paddy Power Gold Cup over two and a half miles where he carried 11st 12lbs. The Aintree run seemed to confirm that he stays three miles, although the Cheltenham hill at the end of the Gold Cup has found out plenty of three-mile winners in the past.

Shan Blue rated a serious threat to Allaho in Ryanair

Perhaps the most eagerly-awaited return to action is that of Shan Blue in the Ryanair Chase. He was among the top rated novices last year. He had the Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby sewn up when crashing out at the third last in October. Skelton announced his intentions to put the gelding away until the Spring shortly after, content to bypass races like the Ladbrokes Trophy and King George VI Chase.

His objective will be a clash with last year’s Ryanair Chase winner Allaho who is odds-on favourite to defend his crown successfully. Shan Blue was campaigned more aggressively last season so it will be fascinating to see how he runs.

Skelton has enjoyed tremendous success in the County Hurdle, winning it with Superb Story, Mohaayed and Ch’tibello. All three had not raced since the previous calendar year and West Cork is this year’s big hope. He won the Greatwood Hurdle after a staggering 631-day absence before picking up a knock when fifth at Ascot in December. With Langer Dan among the market leaders for the Martin Pipe Hurdle and the unbeaten Doctor Parnassus in the Triumph Hurdle, there are plenty of reasons for optimism in the Skelton camp.