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Harry Skelton tops championship after whirlwind start to season

Harry Skelton has opened up a lead over three-time champion Richard Johnson.
Harry Skelton has opened up a lead over three-time champion Richard Johnson.

WITH the jumps season heading towards its third month, there is a new name at the top of the jockeys' championship table as Harry Skelton, boosted by the form of the horses trained by his brother Dan, has opened up a lead over three-time champion Richard Johnson, writes David Hucker.

Although having topped the table briefly last season, Skelton was playing catch-up to Johnson for most of the time, eventually finishing third with a career-best total of 131 compared to the champ’s 176.

This time, the situation is different as, despite riding fewer horses, Skelton’s 33 per cent strike-rate has seen him notch up 49 winners so far, putting him 20 ahead of Johnson and 25 in front of Brian Hughes.

As a result, his odds for the title have been cut from 6-1 to just 5-4 with Paddy Power, although Johnson will have a wider range of trainers to call on as the season unfolds, just two of Skelton’s winners last season were from outside stables, through Kerry Lee and Oliver Greenall, and his chances of lifting the crown could very much depend on how many extra winning rides his agent Ian Popham can book him.

Dan reached the 50-winner mark on 4th August last season when Wynford scored at Bangor on-Dee, but he has achieved that milestone a month earlier this time with the success of Virgilio, the third leg of a four-timer at Uttoxeter on Sunday.

Harry’s half century could come on Tuesday with Hatcher in the Racing Welfare Racing Staff Week Maiden Hurdle, the opening race at Stratford’s evening meeting, which gets underway at 6.30pm.

Successful in the race last year with 7-2 shot Mister Universum, the stable relies on Hatcher from its two entries and he should have the measure of his rivals this time.

A faller at Huntingdon when looking held by the leader, Hatcher was then sent off the 15-8 favourite at the last Stratford meeting to take advantage of the 6lb in weight he received from Olly Murphy’s Yensir, but disappointed and didn’t seem to run on as resolutely as his rival.

He looks to have the improving Fleeting Visit to beat, although he is on a long losing run, having last scored over a mile at Chepstow as a juvenile three years ago.

Outsider The Last Melon was well behind Hatcher last time, but was returning after a 214-day break and should improve on that performance.

Cartmel runner-up Birch Hill carries top-weight in the BH & HPA Heart Of England Novices’ Handicap Chase over two and three-quarter miles, but may struggle to concede 11lbs to Born For War, who finished just behind Notnow Seamus over hurdles at Southwell last time out.

The winner followed up when completing the Skelton Sunday four-timer, so the form looks good and, provided he takes to jumping fences, Born For War could land the prize for owners Paul and Clare Rooney.

Cafe Au Lait has been sent off favourite in all but one of his eight races since joining the Skelton team, the exception being when he recorded an 8-1 win at Bangor-on-Dee last month. He runs here in preference to Worcester on Wednesday, but disappointed when reverting to hurdles last time and looks to have it all to do from a mark of 109.

A winner at the meeting last year, Vosne Romanee lines up again in the feature Class 3 Avonvale Equine Practice 50 Anniversary Handicap Chase over two miles and one furlong, but has to give weight away to all his rivals, including Olly Murphy’s Royal Plaza, who has been raised 6lbs for his win over Mercian King at Fontwell Park last time, but could still be on the upgrade and is taken to confirm the form with the runner-up.

There is another good prize for the Wheaton Lamb & Burrows Handicap Hurdle in which last year’s runner-up Byron Blue will attempt to go one better.

He runs from a 12lb higher handicap mark this time and may find one or two a bit hot to handle, including top-weight Good Tradition, trained in Cheshire by Donald McCain, who had a double at Cartmel on Sunday.

Runner-up on his last two starts, Good Tradition will have his weight reduced by the 5lb allowance of regular jockey Harry Stock, but he may have his work cut out to deny Glanvilles Guest, who was well-backed when scoring at Newton Abbot last time out and could go in again under the experienced Jack Sherwood.

The veteran Forever My Friend, who finished second in a hunter chase at the course on his last run, returns to open company off a handicap mark of 121 in the HL Barnes Handicap Chase over two and a half miles.

This doesn’t look particularly generous and preference is for Our Three Sons, a dual course winner over hurdles, who won well at Towcester before chasing home the useful Diakali last time.

There is not much form to go on in the concluding BCG Racing Standard National Hunt Flat Race in which Olly Murphy has two runners and the betting market may be the best guide to finding the winner.

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