On Saturday, April 24, 2021, Harry Skelton was crowned champion jump jockey for the first time, with 152 winners. His achievement was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he rode almost exclusivey for his elder brother, Dan, who provided him with 136 winners during the 2020/21 campaign. In fact, aside from his brother, Harry Skelton had ten or more rides for just one other trainer, Paul Nicholls, although the 12-time champion trainer did provide him with three winners.
Skelton did, however make the most of his opportunities for other yards, racking up 16 winners from 68 ‘outside’ rides, at a strike rate of 22%. He also finished the campaign very strongly indeed, riding 23 winners in February, 31 in March and 23 in April, which allowed him to overhaul reigning champion Brian Hughes – who had led 126-120 with four weeks of the season remaining – in the race for the jockeys’ title.
Interviewed early in the 2021/22 National Hunt season, Harry Skelton was keen to point out that he is ‘more than just the jockey’ at Lodge Hill Stables and, consequently, acknowledged that it would be ‘very difficult’ to defend the jockeys’ title. However, he did not entirely rule out the possibility of doing so, saying, ‘Of course, I’d love to win it again, but I have to look at the big picture. I want the whole business to thrive.’
The 2022 Grand National is scheduled for 5.15pm on Saturday, April 9 and, as usual, the weights for the celebrated steeplechase will not be revealed until mid-February. However, at the time of writing, it is no surprise to see the 2021 winner, Minella Times, disputing favouritism.
Sent off 11/1 fourth-favourite last year, Minella Times put in a flawless round of jumping to beat stable companion Balko Des Flos by 6½ lengths and, in so doing, made Rachael Blackmore the first female jockey to win the Grand National. Of course, the handicapper will have his say but, at the time of writing, the 8-year-old is a top-priced 20/1 joint-favourite to repeat his Aintree triumph.
At this early stage, the other 20/1 joint-favourite is Any Second Now who, like Minella Times, is owned by J.P. McManus and carried his first colours in the 2021 Grand National. Indeed, he was sent off 15/2 second favourite, behind only the well-handicapped Cloth Cap, last year. He was badly hampered by a faller on the first circuit but, ultimately, the concession of 6lb to Minella Times proved beyond him and he had to settle for third, beaten 8¼ lengths. Again, much depends on how the handicapper reacts, but he has a touch of class and deserves his position at the head of the ante-post market for the 2022 Grand National.
Although obviously not as famous as, say, the Cheltenham Gold Cup or the Gold Cup at Ascot, the Ayr Gold Cup is, nonetheless, the most famous Flat race run in Scotland and forms the centrepiece of the three-day Ayr Gold Cup Festival staged annually in mid-September. Run over a straight six furlongs, open to horses aged three years and upwards and worth £75,000 in total prize money, the Ayr Gold Cup was first run, in its current guise, in 1908. Nowadays, the race is what is known as a ‘Heritage Handicap’ and, as such, is always a hotly-contested, competitive betting heat.
The Ayr Gold Cup has a safety limit of 25, but testament to its popularity is the fact that a consolation race, the Ayr Silver Cup was introduced in 1992 and a consolation race for the consolation race, the Ayr Bronze Cup, was introduced in 2009. Officially, the Ayr Gold Cup is open to horses rated 0-105 but, in 2020, the lowest-rated horses in the field were Arecibo, Staxton and Bungee Jump, all of whom were rated 94; the attraction of the Ayr Silver Cup, worth £30,000 in 2020, and the Ayr Bronze Cup, worth £19,000, is easy enough to understand.
Verifying exactly which horse has won the Grand National by the widest margin is not as a straightforward as it might appear. The ‘length’ has been the standard measure of winning distances since time immemorial but, in modern horse racing, distances are determined by reference to a computerised lengths-per-second (LPS) table, which takes into account the prevailing going and other variables. Nowadays, racecourse judges can record meaningful distances up to, and including, 200 lengths.
However, until just over a decade ago, any distance beyond 30 lengths was simply recorded as ‘a distance’. As far as the Grand National is concerned, six horses – Cloister (1893), Covertcoat (1913), Shaun Splash (1921), Tipperary Tim (1928), Mr What (1958) and Red Marauder (2001) – are credited with having won by a distance. Several reputable sources state that Cloister, who was also the first horse to defy 12st 7lb in the Grand National, won by 40 lengths and therefore holds the record for the widest margin win in history. However, none of them reveal how the figure of 40 lengths was arrived at.
Certainly, the most attritional renewal of the Grand National in recent times occurred in 2001. On nigh on bottomless ground, Red Marauder beat Smarty – who was the only other horse to complete the National Course unscathed – by a distance, with a further distance back to the remounted pair Blowing Wind and Papillon, who were also separated by a distance.