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Skelton and Johnson celebrate Stratford doubles

Harry Skelton.
Harry Skelton.

STRATFORD on Thursday was the scene for the latest round in what is becoming a fascinating duel for this season’s jockeys’ championship, as leader Harry Skelton and reigning champion Richard Johnson were the afternoon’s star turns with two winners a piece, writes David Hucker.

Both had been successful at Perth’s two-day meeting before arriving at Stratford, with Skelton coming into the day with a lead 26 over the three-time champion.

That’s how it stayed, as Skelton took his seasonal tally to 72 and Johnson to 46, with both jockeys moving on to Bangor-on-Dee on Friday.

All but one of Skelton’s winners, which have been achieved at a 35 per cent strike rate, have been on horses trained by his brother Dan, who himself maintained the fierce pace he has been setting at the top of the trainers’ table, moving onto 74 for the season and taking his prize money total over £580,000.

Skelton stuck first, landing the opening Natural Flake Novices’ Hurdle on hot favourite Hatcher, who was never out of first gear to complete a course hat-trick, beating 10-1 shot Highway Star by 31 lengths.

Second favourite Baby Ted was tailed off when unseating Jamie Bargary at the penultimate flight and Hatcher won as he liked, although will find life a bit tougher as he steps up into handicap company.

Johnson hit back in the following Priority SMS Selling Hurdle when Royal Plaza, who was not disgraced when going down to Vosne Romanee over fences here on his last start, was another easy winner, having 12 lengths to spare over Let’s Sway.

With Vosne Romanee having followed up from a handicap mark of 140, the form looked well above selling standard and punters backed him into 1-2 favourite. Having taken up the running at the second-last flight, Royal Plaza came right away to land another winner for Wilmcote trainer Olly Murphy.

It wasn’t all good news in the race for Murphy, however, as his other runner Dove Mountain, who had provided him with his very first winner, was tailed off when unseating Callum McKinnes at the final flight.

The two went head-to-head in the day’s feature race, the £15,000 Watch Racing UK On Sky 426 Handicap Hurdle, and it was Johnson who came out on top, driving top-weight Innocent Touch back up to win 50 yards from the line after Skelton and Parthenius had looked the likely winners on jumping the last flight.

Skelton evened the score on the afternoon when Massini’s Lady, having her first run for the stable, took the Low 6 Handicap Chase. Previously trained by Nick Alexander, for whom she won just one race, Massini’s Lady, got there in the end after jumping sluggishly early on and being driven to take the lead at the 14 fence, asserting to go clear and win by five lengths.

Birch Hill, who carried 11-12 to victory here last month, was sent off 4-1 joint favourite to take the Watch More With Racing UK Extra Novices’ Handicap Chase, but was struggling when pulled up and dismounted by Adrian Heskin after the eighth fence.

The race went to the other joint favourite Comanche Chieftain, who made all the running with Wayne Hutchinson, being clear of his field coming out of the back straight and winning in good style for Wiltshire trainer Neil King, who had seen his star hurdler Lil Rockerfeller land a wide-margin success at Glorious Goodwood the day before.

Bennachie, who was chasing a hat-trick when unseating his jockey at the fourth fence at Hexham in May, was going strongly when coming down at the second-last fence in the Racing UK Extra On racinguk.com Handicap Chase.

This left the way open for 8-1 shot Opechee to take the lead at the final obstacle and forge clear under Tom Scudamore to beat Mountain Of Angels by seven lengths.

There was another good-sized field for the concluding All New racinguk.com Novices’ Handicap Hurdle and it went to His Dream, backed from 10-1 to 13-2, who pounced to deny Johnson and Boethius close home, with Skelton’s mount, the 5-2 favourite Simply Lucky, only fifth.

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