Dan Skelton edged further ahead of Paul Nicholls in pursuit of Willie Mullins, as the battle for the jump trainers’ championship continues to look like it will go down to the final day of the season.

Skelton picked up a 113th victory of the season, with Doyen Quest winning the Kingston Stud Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham, and then saw Nicholls’ Rare Middleton just headed close home in the concluding Cheltenham Pony Racing Authority Graduates Handicap Hurdle.

Skelton picked up a winning prize of £13,007.50 with that win and Nicholls now trails his former assistant by just under £80,000.

Mullins leads the title by around £50,000, with this weekend’s Scottish Grand National meeting at Ayr and the season-ending Sandown fixture pivotal for the destination of the crown.

Doyen Quest was two lengths down heading to the final hurdle along the stand side rail, but shifted inside after clearing the obstacle.

Harry Skelton then kicked for home on the six-year-old and got up to land the race by half a length from Whatsupwithyou at 4-1, backing up his victory at Newbury from last month.

Nicholls’ Lallygag was prominent throughout but weakened after clearing the final hurdle, coming home 12th of the 15th finishers.

In Excelsis Deo justified favouritism at 3-1 to land the feature Matt Hampson Foundation Silver Trophy Handicap Chase for Harry Fry and Jonathan Burke.

The Nicholls-trained Il Ridoto was pulled up by Harry Cobden, while Skelton’s Sail Away and Our Jet both finished well down the field.

In Excelsis Deo gained two lengths on Hang In There and Scarface going over the final fence and galloped clear up the hill to win by four and three-quarter lengths.

Skelton’s Grade Two-winning Proschema returned after nearly a year off the track in the Safran Landing Systems Handicap Hurdle but finished out of the money down in eighth, as Zain Nights (9-2) took top honours for Lucy Wadham and Bryony Frost.

Nicholls clawed back some prize-money in the final race on the card, with Rare Middleton prominent throughout and having the beating of 13-8 favourite Our Champ up the run-in, only for the fast finishing 11-1 shot Tintintin to come up the rail to collar him on the line.

Skelton’s pair A Law Of Her Own and In This World finished out of the money, alongside Nicholls’ other runner Wild Max.

Dan Skelton improved his already impressive record in handicaps at the major meetings when Gwennie May Boy continued his rapid improvement in the William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Aintree.

Having won the Grand Annual and Coral Cup at Cheltenham with Unexpected Party and Langer Dan respectively, Skelton plundered another valuable prize on Merseyside with Kateira on Friday.

Last year’s winner West Balboa appeared the stable’s first string in the Grand National day curtain-raiser, going off a well-backed 11-4 favourite under the trainer’s brother, Harry, but this time around had to make do with minor honours behind a stablemate on a steep upward trajectory.

Gwennie May Boy, who had won both of his first two races since moving to Skelton from Jonjo O’Neill’s yard, looked like he had just joined in at the second-last under Charlie Todd and the 9-2 shot scooted clear from the final obstacle to score by seven and a half lengths from Lord Snootie.

“I have to say, I genuinely thought West Balboa would win, especially after Kateira won yesterday as there was nothing separating them when they last ran together at Kempton,” said Skelton.

“I am astounded at the improvement in this horse (Gwennie May Boy). He’s only a six-year-old and walking round beforehand I thought he looked a bit light and might be over the top, but what do I know – it’s clearly how he likes to be.

“I’ve not had him all that long and I hadn’t even worked him out before I ran him at Bangor, I just ran him. He won so well there I thought there’s a £100,000 race at Uttoxeter so we better go for that and then there was this here, it was just obvious.

“He has taken me by surprise as he works terrible at home, but he saves it all for the track and he’s just got on a roll. He’s been a remarkable little horse.”

Kateira landed a vital blow in Dan Skelton’s quest for a first trainers’ championship when romping home in the William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Aintree.

Second in Grade One company over track and trip 12 months ago, the seven-year-old has always possessed plenty of class and produced a performance full of quality to register a one-and-three-quarter-length success.

Having seen off the challenge of long-time front-runner Inthewaterside she kept on gamely to the line as Grade One course winner Jango Baie gave chase in vein.

Nicky Henderson’s runner can perhaps count himself an unlucky loser as he adds more evidence to the Seven Barrows resurgence case, but the 5-1 co-favourite was strong at the finish to give the Skelton team their second win in three years following Langer Dan’s triumph in 2022.

Skelton said: “She’s a good horse, we came here last year for a Grade One which shows you what we thought of her but she just got lost in the autumn and winter on very bad ground.

“I actually stepped her up to three miles but when you do that it is because you are struggling. What she wants is two and a half miles on decent ground and if this race was yesterday it would probably have been too soft for her.

“She’s just really good, I’d have no worries stepping out of handicaps again after that, she might go to Sandown on the last day. Since this meeting last year if she didn’t end up being a graded horse this was the race we were always looking at.”

Skelton is involved in a triple challenge for the trainers’ title but said he is not letting it dictate his plans. He smiled: “I think this race should be worth £500,000!

“I went to bed last night thinking I’m not going to think about it again, it either happens or it doesn’t and I’m going to run the horses I’m going to run.

“I got worked up about it last week trying to think what Paul (Nicholls) and Willie (Mullins) were going to run but I can’t affect that. I’ve got to enjoy otherwise you have a winner like that and open the book and see how much it was worth. I’m not doing it for that.”

The eyes of the racing world will be focussed on Aintree at 4pm on Saturday for what promises to be another pulsating renewal of the Randox Grand National. Here are the thoughts of some of the connections hoping to strike gold in the world’s most famous steeplechase:

Trainer Emmet Mullins – Noble Yeats (11st 12lb)

“Noble is great, he got the ferry over on Thursday. He’s had a good prep and came out of Cheltenham very well. The ground has to be seen as a bit of a negative as his best form is on nice spring ground, but he’s in good form and hopefully he’ll run a good race.

“He’s got top-weight now but he’s only got 1lb more to carry than if Conflated was running so that’s neither here nor there. He’s got the weight for a good reason and ran a brilliant race with similar last year.

“Hopefully the route we’ve gone this year, Stayers’ Hurdle rather than Gold Cup, will just leave him that little bit fresher.”

Trainer Gordon Elliott – Coko Beach (11st 8lb), Delta Work (11st 4lb), Galvin (11st 2lb), Farouk D’Alene (11st 1lb), Run Wild Fred (10st 10lb), Minella Crooner (10st 10lb), Chemical Energy (10st 9lb), The Goffer (10st 8lb)

“To be honest the ground has gone against a few of then, Galvin would have loved a bit of better ground. Delta Work and Coko Beach are probably the pick of them on the ground.

“Coko Beach loves the mud, he’s probably not that well handicapped but hopefully he’ll run well.

“I’m really happy with Delta, he’s never been working as well and I haven’t had him moving as well in the last two years. I’m looking forward to it.”

Trainer Henry de Bromhead – Minella Indo (11st 6lb), Ain’t That A Shame (10st 13lb), Eklat De Rire (10st 7lb)

“Minella Indo would obviously have a squeak, he has a good chance on his best form.

“Ain’t That A Shame ran well in the race last year, David Maxwell is on him and hopefully he’ll give him a good spin round. He was very good in the Thyestes.

“Eklat De Rire was disappointing at Cheltenham, we felt he was coming back before that. He’s in good form and we’re hoping that type of race will bring him back.

“I think drying ground would suit Indo, probably the other two like a bit of dig in the ground.”

Trainer Dan Skelton – Galia Des Liteaux (10st 7lb)

“She loves the soft ground and I think she’ll stay the trip, you can never absolutely certain until they have but everything about her says she’ll stay it.

“She’s in great form and we’ve trained her specifically for it, just like everyone else in the race has. There are no negatives.

“There’s a lot of water to go under that bridge (trainers’ championship), but having good chances at this meeting with the prize-money on offer there is obviously very important.”

Jockey James Reveley – Roi Mage (10st 8lb)

“He’s a horse I’ve ridden a few times and I know quite well. I’d ridden him in France and I thought he’d be a good National type.

“I think things have gone a bit better for him this year, his last run was good, very solid, and I liked how he stayed on to the line.

“They campaign him quietly, they don’t over-race him and that’s good for an older horse. He enjoys his life with the Griffins in Ireland and I’m quietly confident.”

Trainer Gary Moore – Nassalam (11st 8lb)

“He couldn’t be in a better place at home and I’m really happy with him. Everything has gone to plan except the sun has come out and it’s drying the ground out and I can’t see any rain about.

“The fact he’s got so much weight, it will be easier to carry it on better ground. But he is a stone better horse on heavy ground and it just limits his chances a bit to be honest.

“I would rather have deep ground and he will probably have two things against him now – the weight and the ground.”

Trainer Tom Ellis – Latenightpass (10st 10lb)

“It’s a big day and arguably our biggest, but I’m looking forward to it.

“We’ve had a really good run with him coming into the race to be fair and we’ve had a nice run with him.

“He looks really well and he’s done all his work now and we’ve had this in mind since December. It’s just been a case of following the plan since.

“The fences and the course are not a worry with him, but the ground would be a slight concern. Although it’s the same for them all and at least Latenightpass has won on soft and heavy before anyway. Hopefully he will run well.”

Assistant trainer Patrick Mullins – I Am Maximus (11st 6lb), Meetingofthewaters (10st 8lb), Mr Incredible (10st 11lb), Stattler (11st 5lb)

“It’s obviously going to dry up before Saturday and I imagine it will be sticky rather than wet.

“I Am Maximus has a big engine but I’m not sure how his jumping will stand up. In the Irish National he jumped himself out of it in the first two miles then got back into it but that is a lot harder to do over here. His best form seems to be right-handed at Fairyhouse even though he jumps left so he has a few questions to answer.

“Meetingofthewaters I think has a great profile, he is a young horse and unexposed and it was a great run at Cheltenham. He’ll have to settle and that will be a big thing for him – he was a bit keen at Cheltenham. I think he has a lovely racing weight and he’s right down the bottom really.

“Mr Incredible is a bit of a maverick and the standing start is a bit of a concern for him, he doesn’t need any encouragement to stand still for any length of time. If he does jump off, he was running a cracker here last year and this place lights him up a bit so you would have to take him seriously as well.

“I’m riding Stattler and I would have to worry about the ground for him, it will need to dry up. For me the National is the race that counts and if you are not in it you can’t win it. Any chance I get to ride in it, I’ll be taking it ”

Trainer Mouse Morris – Foxy Jacks (11st 4lb)

“It’s been a very lucky place for me, I’ve had a good few winners here and I’ve been lucky enough to win the big one before.

“Foxy Jacks is jumping super and he gave an exhibition at Cheltenham in the cross-country (in November). The handicapper hasn’t been good to him and gave him 8lb for winning the cross-country and I think Hewick only got 2lb for winning the King George so I can’t work out the mathematics.

“It’s a big day and a big race so we will let him take his chance. He’s 10 now and very easy to train now so I’m not worried (about the cross-country being cancelled at the Cheltenham Festival).

“He probably won’t be at his best in the ground and I think it is whoever gets round that will win. We live and dream, there’s no point sleeping if you don’t dream.”

Dan Skelton’s Ryanair hero Protektorat has the My Pension Expert Melling Chase in his sights at Aintree.

The nine-year-old comes into the meeting off the back of a triumphant Cheltenham Festival, where he was the winner of the Ryanair Chase by a convincing four lengths.

There was subsequently some talk of him stepping back up in distance in Liverpool but, as the ground is set to be testing, connections have decided to stick at the two-and-a-half-mile trip over which he won the Manifesto Novices’ Chase on Merseyside in 2021.

Skelton said: “We decided we’d stick to two and a half on this ground. I think if the ground was really decent, we’d have made a different decision but when the ground is like this, the decision is almost made for you.

“We’ll go and give it a whirl and I’m very happy with him at home – he flew up the hill on Tuesday morning.

“For some reason, he’s taking his racing better than he ever has, I don’t know whether that’s age, strength or a combination, but he’s in good form.”

Paul Nicholls has Pic D’Orhy in the race, last year’s winner and a horse enjoying a good season so far, having won twice in three runs.

He took both the 1965 Chase and the Ascot Chase either side of finishing second in the Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton in January behind Joseph O’Brien’s Banbridge.

“I’ve always believed in this horse and am very proud of what he has achieved over the last two seasons,” the trainer told Betfair.

“With a better jump at the last fence, it would have been even closer between him and Banbridge in the Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton and he was giving 3lb to the narrow winner.

“That was a career best by Pic D’Orhy, who is in top form at home and beat two smart horses at Ascot last time.

“There are some classy types in opposition again in this Grade One but he is classy, too, and I’ve kept him for this race, which he won 12 months ago. He worked impressively on Saturday.”

Nicky Henderson’s Jonbon missed his Cheltenham engagement as the stable was in ill health but he returns to action for this race for a step up in trip, having been a two-miler to date.

His most recent run came in the rerouted Clarence House Chase, held at Cheltenham as the Ascot meeting was abandoned due to frost, where he finished second to an outsider in Joe Tizzard’s Elixir De Nutz.

“The Clarence House was disappointing, he never got into a rhythm on the day to be fair. He hadn’t settled into it as one would have liked and he got untidy,” Henderson told Unibet.

“Having said that, you felt he was still a little bit unlucky not to win really, but it would have been a messy performance.

“I’m looking forward to running him over two and a half (miles) for the first time because I think that really will suit him.

“He’s a horse that wants to be going forwards, and then he can really enjoy himself. He’s been in very good form and Nico (de Boinville) has been schooling him every other day and he loves it.

“I’m hopeful, everybody is happy with him. He might be better on good ground but he’s won on soft and heavy and when he’s right, I think he’s very good. I think he’s a horse the others have to beat.

“If he gets this far, how far will he get? He could just be like Shishkin. He’s proving himself at two miles but why switch, but he jumped from two to three miles in one season?”

Elsewhere in the race is Envoi Allen, Henry de Bromhead’s 2023 Ryanair Chase winner who finished second in the contest this year.

Gordon Elliott will saddle Conflated, a Gigginstown House Stud-owned 10-year-old who took the third-place spot in the Ryanair and has been chosen for this contest over the Grand National.

Willie Mullins has a single runner in Easy Game, whereas Donald McCain runs last season’s Melling third in Minella Drama.

Dan Skelton will be giving it his all to win the trainers’ championship after adding to his brilliant Cheltenham Festival with winners at both Uttoxeter and Kempton on Saturday.

Fresh from being the standout British trainer in the Cotswolds, when saddling a career-best four winners over the four days, he edged ahead of Paul Nicholls in the trainers’ standings when keeping the ball rolling across the cards on Saturday.

However, he is predicting a tough battle to end his former Ditcheat boss’ stranglehold on the trophy and is hoping he has the right horses in reserve to run at the latter end of the season.

“I will give it a good go to win it and Paul will give it a good go to defend it and it will have to be worked for,” said Skelton.

“I will give it a go, but what I won’t be doing is running horses unnecessarily. Horses like the bumper horse, Royal Infantry, it’s correct for him to finish his season now, so I won’t be asking horses it is inappropriate to do so to come out. However, those that are, will.”

Skelton saddled a double at Uttoxeter thanks to the victories of Santos Blue and Gwennie May Boy, while Boombawn made a successful return from 302 days off the track in Kempton’s Read Nicky Henderson’s Exclusive Unibet Blog Handicap Hurdle.

The progressive seven-year-old was once again showing his love for Kempton having struck in Listed company at the Sunbury track in October 2022 and after travelling with real enthusiasm in the hands of Harry Skelton, the 13-2 chance dug deep to hold off the rallying Titan Discovery at the finish.

He told Racing TV: “We had him ready for the Silver Trophy at Chepstow in the autumn, but it was an unusually wet autumn and then we had him ready two weeks later for somewhere that went soft or heavy and in the end I just sent him home to one of his owners, Sarah Faulks, and she just gave him a week off at home and freshened him up.

“We got him back around Christmas time and he’s just been aching for this bit better ground. I know it’s not officially good today, but it’s a lot better (than it has been) and he’s entitled to be progressive – what you saw at Aintree (on his last start) showed you he was going in the right direction.

“He will have Aintree, Ayr and Sandown on the last day of the season on his agenda and we might even consider going over fences with him, depending on the time of year and if there are any races we can get him in.

“If it got to May and he was beyond the rating ceiling to get into a novice chase, we could even take him to France.”

Meanwhile, Skelton is hopeful his quartet of Festival winners will be a part of his arsenal for his title challenge after providing a positive update on their wellbeing.

“They are all really good. Langer Dan just has a little infection in a leg and all the other winners are good. Langer Dan is fine by the way, it is just something that is mentionable,” Skelton added.

“Grey Dawning will probably run (again) at three miles, Protektorat will have the option of two (races) and I would love to step Langer Dan up to Grade One company. Unexpected Party will have a heap of entries and we will see what’s best.”

British Horseracing Authority chief executive Julie Harrington has warned the dominance of Irish trainers at the Cheltenham Festival is “damaging” for the sport.

Irish handlers won 18 of the 27 races across the four days, with 12 of the 14 Grade One contests also going their way and Willie Mullins accounting for eight of those on his own among an overall tally of nine winners for the Closutton team – a total which also took him over 100 Festival winners.

Dan Skelton flew the flag for Britain by sending out four winners, including a memorable top-level double with Ryanair Chase victor Protektorat and Turners Novices’ Chase hero Grey Dawning on Thursday, with Ben Pauling, Paul Nicholls, Kim Bailey, Jeremy Scott and Fiona Needham also getting on the scoresheet.

While Harrington praised those achievements, she feels the Irish supremacy is “becoming more pronounced”.

She said: “I would like to offer my congratulations to every winner this week, and everyone connected with those horses. We again tip our hat to the Irish, and in particular Willie Mullins whose achievement in reaching 100+ Festival winners is truly remarkable.

“Congratulations also go to the British trainers who secured winners this week, in particular Dan Skelton for his impressive haul.

“I have no doubt that the men and women who train horses here in Britain are more than a match for their Irish counterparts. However, they need the ammunition and at present the balance of power and the best horses are going to our colleagues in Ireland, and in particular one yard.

“This is not a new issue. The direction of travel has been set for a number of years now. The sport has been alive to this and taken measures to seek to address it, through attempting to tackle funding issues associated with the sport, seeking increased investment, looking at the race programme, and more recently the delivery of the recommendations of the Quality Jump Racing Review.

“However, the Irish domination of the Grade One races this week has illustrated that the issue is becoming more pronounced and more damaging for the sport on both sides of the Irish sea.”

Following a nightmare Festival for the home side in 2021 which saw just five winners for British trainers, the BHA set up the review group which made a series of recommendations that were unveiled at the start of 2022, with further tweaks to the fixture list this term in an attempt to improve the upper tier of British National Hunt racing.

However, Harrington concedes more now needs to be done and at a faster pace to ensure no further ground is lost.

She said: “Put simply, the rate of decline of jump racing in Britain at the top end has outstripped the measures that have been put in place to tackle it. We must do more, more quickly, and in a more coordinated and decisive manner if we are going to restore British jump racing to the standing at which it belongs.

“Central to this is the delivery of the industry strategy. The strategy is all about growth. At the core of this is investment in the top echelons of our sport, with a view to incentivising the best horses to be bred, owned, trained and raced on these shores. An additional £3.8million in prize-money has already been earmarked for investment in 2024 across the top end of the sport in both codes.

“The strategy is also about much more than just investing in prize money. We need to grow our fanbase by encouraging new fans and retaining existing fans and owners, improve the experience of ownership and attending and viewing racing, and much more besides.

“To achieve this the sport must work together with urgency and clarity of purpose. The times of being reluctant to embrace change or new ideas, lack of transparency and focusing on narrow self-interest must be put firmly behind us.”

Talks are currently ongoing between the BHA and bookmakers on levy reform, which Harrington believes is another key factor in improving British fortunes in the future.

She concluded: “The very visible deterioration in British racing’s competitiveness with our international colleagues has also been at the heart of our discussions with the betting industry and DCMS around the levy, and our representations to Government around the risk of the damaging impact of affordability checks.

“We have seen great progress in the last 18 months and a spirit of collaboration is clearly developing. I am confident that if the sport and its allies work together around this shared goal then it can flourish once again. Not just across four days in March, but across the whole year. Jump racing’s popularity in Britain is immense and its potential limitless.”

It was deemed a “score draw” between the punters and the layers heading into the final day of the Cheltenham Festival after football encroached heavily on racing’s pitch on day three

The backers got off to a fast start when 5-2 joint -avourite Grey Dawning gave the flying Dan Skelton team victory in the Turners Novices’ Chase, but the bookmakers clawed back some momentum after Sir Alex Ferguson’s pair Monmiral (25-1) and Protektorat (17-2) gave the former Manchester United boss a thrilling day at Prestbury Park.

And although the bookies were able to cheer home Jeremy Scott’s Golden Ace later on the card, victories for well-backed favourites Teahupoo and Inothewayurthinkin ensured many a punter left the Cotswolds track with their pockets bursting at the seams.

“Grey Dawning got punters off to a great start, while Monmiral and Protektorat had their supporters – possibly Manchester United fans – as did Harry Rednkapp’s Shakem Up’Arry, and Teahupoo and Inothewayurthinkin were also very well-backed winning favourites,” said Coral’s David Stevens.

“Golden Ace was our best result of the day, beating the Irish stars in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle, but in footballing terms, it’s a score draw as we head into the biggest betting day of the week.”

Lawrence Lyons, spokesperson for BoyleSports, added: “We were on a rollercoaster ride on Thursday with some big results going in our favour, but Gordon Elliott got in on the act and the favourite in the last race also gave punters plenty to cheer about ahead of a decisive day.

“It’s 2-1 to the punters at this stage, but it’s all to play for on Gold Cup Friday.”  

One football-loving racing fan was in clover on St Patrick’s Thursday as their £5 multiple on three horses owned by famous footballing names returned a whopping £16,195.

After Ferguson’s Monmiral and Protektorat had found the target to kick off the hat-trick bid it was Redknapp’s Shakem Up’Arry who sealed the 3,239-1 treble for the lucky punter.

Betfair’s Barry Orr said: “The punter must not only be a racing fan, but also a big football fan.

“The two ex-bosses are massive racing enthusiasts and Cheltenham is the Champions League of the horseracing world, so for both to score on the biggest stage is a great result.”

Dan Skelton made no bones about Willie Mullins’ unquestionable Cheltenham dominance, but he took the Festival fight to his rival’s door with a thrilling Grade One double on day three.

Wednesday marked Mullins 100th overall success at the National Hunt spectacular, with Skelton admitting it is now less about the home team taking on Ireland and more about everyone trying to remain competitive with Team Mullins.

Recent years have marked a distinct lack of Festival success for British-trained runners, but Skelton is doing his level best to buck the trend, supplementing a day two double with Grade One glory courtesy of Grey Dawning in the Turners Novices’ Chase and Protektorat in the Ryanair Chase.

Grey Dawning had to repel the challenge of the Paul Nicholls-trained Ginny’s Destiny for his win, with Venetia Williams’ Djelo taking third for a rare British clean sweep, while Protektorat was too strong for Henry de Bromhead’s defending champion Envoi Allen over the near two-mile-five-furlong trip of the Ryanair.

Both were partnered by Skelton’s brother Harry, and the trainer could hardly contain his delight after a dual strike on the biggest stage of all.

He said: “This is the place you want to win and when you beat Paul, when you beat Willie, when you beat Nicky (Henderson) and Gordon (Elliott) and Henry, they’re legitimate victories. It’s hard to do and we enjoy doing it.

“It’s remarkable how things are going, I’m very proud of the whole team. This is what you plan to do, but it actually coming off is very, very different.”

A nightmare set of Festival results in 2021 saw just five victories for British trainers, but Skelton’s winners combined with Paul Nicholls’ win in the Pertemps Final with Monmiral and the Kim Bailey-trained Chianti Classico’s verdict in the Ultima on the opening day had ensured no repeat of that disappointment by the middle of the third day.

While Skelton has faith fortunes will turn again in British trainers’ favour eventually, he believes the hard work will be in catching the all-conquering Mullins squad.

He added: “It’s not easy, we’re not having things our own way (in Britain), maybe we were used to having things our own way for so long.

“This is a sport, people have supporters and as trainers we have owners. What we’ve got to do is knuckle down, we all are, and get stuck into it and it’ll turn. I’m not saying it will turn all the way back and it probably wouldn’t be a good thing to have such one-sidedness ever again.

“Willie by his own admission says he seeks competition and all of this England versus Ireland talk, I hate to break it to everyone but it’s everyone versus Willie, so we need a dose of reality on that as well.”

Protektorat proved dropping back in trip was no issue when producing a brilliant display to claim the Ryanair Chase for the red-hot Dan Skelton team at the Cheltenham Festival.

A Grade One winner over three miles, he was third and fifth when tried in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the past two years and connections resisted taking a third crack at the blue riband to revert to one of the day three features

There was plenty of pace on show with Stage Star and Ahoy Senor leading the field along, with Protektorat among those right on that duo’s tail in the hands of Harry Skelton.

Having travelled menacingly into contention it appeared 9-4 favourite and defending champion Envoi Allen was the one the front-runners had to worry about heading into the straight, but neither Stage Star or Protektorat were ready to give up the fight and although Stage Star faded after two out there was still plenty of fight left in Protektorat.

There was little to separate Protektorat and Henry de Bromhead’s charge jumping the final fence, but it was Protektorat’s stamina reserves which then came to the fore late in the day as the 17-2 chance stormed up the Cheltenham hill to victory.

It was Skelton’s fourth victory at this year’s Festival, and also the second in the space of 40 minutes for the collective of owners that include Sir Alex Ferguson and John Hales – whose famous yellow colours Skelton donned in the saddle.

Grey Dawning continued Dan Skelton’s fabulous Cheltenham Festival with a brilliant victory in the Turners Novices’ Chase.

Paul Nicholls’ Ginny’s Destiny never missed a beat out in front as he attempted to repeat Stage Star’s victory in this race 12 months ago, but Grey Dawning was never far away in the hands of the trainer’s brother, Harry, and as they headed down hill it became clear it would be an all-British shoot-out up the famous hill.

The duo swung the bend locked in unison but having jumped two out matching strides, it was the 5-2 joint-favourite who edged to the front at the last and stayed on strongly to see Skelton oust his former Ditcheat boss and register his third triumph of the week at the showpiece meeting.

Venetia Williams’ Djelo came home in third to complete a one-two-three for the home team, with Zanahiyr the best of the Irish in fourth.

Langer Dan retained his title for Dan and Harry Skelton in the Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

The eight-year-old struck last year off the same mark and started as a 13-2 chance to return the trophy to owner Colm Donlon’s mantelpiece.

After moving sweetly in the mid-division Langer Dan inched his way into the race as it developed before powering into the lead up the hill, pulling away to win comfortably on the line, by three and a half lengths from Ballyadam.

Dan Skelton’s Grey Dawning looks to take the next step in his career over fences as he prepares to line up in the Turners Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

The seven-year-old has enjoyed a productive season so far, winning his second start over fences when beating Gaillard Du Mesnil in a Haydock graduation chase in which he was a nine-and-a-half-length scorer.

At Cheltenham in December he was second to Ginny’s Destiny in a novice event, after which he strolled to a 14-length victory in the Hampton Novices’ Chase at Warwick.

Grey Dawning and Ginny’s Destiny will now meet again, and Skelton expects them to go toe-to-toe.

“He’s a very good horse I feel,” the trainer said of his runner.

“I feel we are very closely matched with Ginny’s Destiny and things didn’t quite go our way when we met them at Cheltenham.

“Ginny’s Destiny is entitled to have improved since then and obviously has because he’s won again, but so have we so there is not much between the top two in the market and that’s before you include all the others.”

As mentioned by Skelton, Ginny’s Destiny went on to triumph next time out when taking the Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase on return to Cheltenham – leaving him with three wins to four runs over fences on his CV.

“He loves the place and worked very, very well on Saturday morning – I’m very happy with him,” Nicholls said.

“I would say he’s in as good a shape as we’ve ever had him and he will need to be.

“Stage Star won the same race as him last year before winning this and I think Ginny’s Destiny is rated a few pounds higher than he was, so hopefully he has a good chance.

“I think the race has an open feel to it and he jumps and gallops. We’ve improved a lot since we met Dan’s horse first time.

“Hopefully he is the one who can go to the next level and we’ll give it a whirl.”

Iroko provided trainers Oliver Greenall and Josh Guerriero with the biggest success of their careers so far when landing the Martin Pipe at the meeting last year and will fly the flag for the stable again.

The six-year-old was at one point expected to be out of action for the season due to injury, but his recovery happened at a quicker pace than anticipated and he returns to action at Cheltenham having last been seen winning his sole chasing start Warwick in November.

“He seems on song and everything is right with him, so we will keep our fingers crossed,” Guerriero said.

“We thought he was out for the season so to have him back is brilliant and to go to Cheltenham with him is even better.

“His course form on the New course has got to help and course form is always helpful at Cheltenham.

“His inexperience over fences isn’t ideal, but there is not a lot we can do about that and we’ve been away for a gallop and school over fences and we’ve done all we can.

“He’s been there and won a decent race in the past, so if he’s up to the task, we hope he will run really well.”

Willie Mullins has two representatives, with Facile Vega the most popular in the market after his third-placed run behind stablemate Il Etait Temps in the Irish Arkle when last seen.

Sharjah was fourth in the same race and represents the same yard under leading amateur Patrick Mullins.

Gordon Elliott’s Zanahiyr and Gavin Cromwell’s Letsbeclearaboutit complete the Irish challenge, with Venetia Williams set to run Scilly Isles runner-up Djelo and Jamie Snowden saddling Colonel Harry, who was third in the same race.

Gary Moore’s Le Patron and David Pipe’s Jamaico complete the field of 11.

Dual winner Flooring Porter, Grand National hero Noble Yeats and previous Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle victors Paisley Park and Sire Du Berlais are all set to line up in this year’s race.

Fergal O’Brien’s Long Walk winner Crambo, the Gordon Elliott-trained Teahupoo and the enigmatic duo of Asterion Forlonge and Champ have also been declared for what appears a fascinating renewal of the three-mile contest.

A total of 13 have been declared, with Willie Mullins’ Sir Gerhard another big player along with Dashel Drasher and Home By The Lee.

Janadil and Buddy One have also been declared.

Last year’s winner Envoi Allen leads 11 in the Ryanair Chase for Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore.

The Cheveley Park Stud-owned 10-year-old has not run since November but has a habit of reserving his best for the Festival.

Paul Nicholls’ Stage Star needs to bounce back from a poor run on New Year’s Day but previously won the Paddy Power Chase under top weight. Stablemate Hitman also runs.

Dan Skelton’s Protektorat drops back in trip having had a crack at the Gold Cup for the last two years, Elliott runs Conflated and Fil Dor while Willie Mullins is represented by Capodanno.

The one horse who will not be suited by Tuesday’s rain is Joseph O’Brien’s Banbridge, who was a non-runner at the Festival last year when the ground went soft.

Ahoy Senor, Fugitif and the supplemented Ga Law make up the field.

The third Grade One on the card is the Turners Novices’ Chase in which an open field of 11 has been declared.

Ginny’s Destiny is gaining a reputation as a course specialist while Grey Dawning, Iroko and Gary Moore’s Le Patron all feature in a strong home team.

Facile Vega will be looking to redeem his reputation for Mullins who also runs Sharjah.

Elliott’s Brighterdaysahead carries plenty of stable confidence in the Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle where she will face the promising Jade De Grugy and Dysart Enos.

A full field of 24 will go to post in the Pertemps Network Final in which Farouk D’Alene is top weight.

There are 21 in the Trustatrader Plate, in which Jonjo O’Neill’s Crebilly is well fancied while Angels Dawn will bid for back-to-back wins in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Jockeys’ Handicap Chase

A swift return to action proved no barrier to success for Dan Skelton’s Heltenham in the BetVictor Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury.

Turning out just seven days after being beaten half a length into second place at Kempton, the seven-year-old was a 17-2 chance to go one better in the hands of Ciaran Gethings.

Heltenham moved strongly onto the heels of the leaders early in the home straight before being allowed to stride to the front by his confident rider on the approach to the second-last obstacle.

Kandoo Kid, a 9-2 joint-favourite to provide Paul Nicholls with a 10th Greatwood Gold Cup win, briefly threatened to battle back on the run-in, but Skelton’s charge found more once challenged and passed the post with two lengths in hand to notch his second course and distance victory.

“It’s definitely the biggest pot I’ve won, it’s just brilliant to be riding horses like this for a brilliant outfit like the Skeltons,” Gethings told Sky Sports Racing.

“I got instructions from both Harry and Dan and it’s a nice payday. He loved the ground, he was very unlucky last week in Cheltenham and the track would have suited him a lot better today.

“When you’re surrounded by people like the Skeltons and Stuart Edmunds and Kim Bailey you’re going to find a good one at some point, it was nice”

Highland Hunter was a 10-1 winner of the curtain-raising Get Best Odds Guaranteed At BetVictor Veterans’ Handicap Chase for Fergal O’Brien and Paddy Brennan.

The 11-year-old grey, part-owned by the winning rider’s wife Lindsey Brennan, took the race by the scruff of the neck a long way out and was good value for the winning margin of just over four lengths.

Highland Hunter was formerly trained by Nicholls and looked after by the late Keagan Kirkby, who was fatally injured in a point-to-point fall in January.

Brennan said: “This was his (Kirkby’s) favourite horse and he’s going to lead his funeral on Tuesday, so my most important job today was to bring him back safe for that.

“I was going to put them to the sword today as I knew our horse was fit and I knew he was well. The ground is hard work, but it’s not heavy.”

Bucephalus (13-2) took the Download The BetVictor App Novices’ Handicap Hurdle for trainer Neil Mulholland and 7lb claimer Thomosina Eyston, while 2-1 shot Spring Note provided Nicky Henderson with a welcome winner in the Make Your Best Bet At BetVictor Handicap Hurdle under James Bowen.

Title-chasing jockey Harry Cobden enjoyed a double on the card, scoring aboard Anthony Charlton’s Knowwhentoholdem (4-1) in the BetVictor Non-Runner-No-Bet At Cheltenham Seniors’ Handicap Hurdle before steering Makin’yourmindup (11-8 favourite) to a clear-cut victory for his boss Paul Nicholls in the Bet Racing In Running At BetVictor Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase.

“He loves the ground and stays well and I would see him next year as a Welsh National horse – that will be his ultimate aim next year I think,” said Nicholls.

“What we do now I don’t know really, I could just stick him in the Scottish National or something like that in case it was soft.

“He’s improving and the jockey is improving too isn’t he! He’s riding extremely well, eight weeks today is the last day of the season so we’ve got to keep going until then and if he could be champion jockey it would be fantastic for him and the team.”

Following a last time out victory at Wetherby, Harry Derham’s 7-4 favourite Jasmine Bliss doubled her tally in the Stewart Wright Memorial Mares’ Open NH Flat Race, with Paul O’Brien the winning rider.

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