Alcester trainer Dan Skelton knows Protektorat faces stern test from A Plus Tard at Haydock Park
DAN Skelton is under no illusions of the challenge that faces his stable star Protektorat, who is gearing up for a mouth-watering clash with last season’s Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup hero A Plus Tard in the Grade One Betfair Chase at Haydock Park this Saturday, reports Nick Seddon.
The pair have previous and this will be the second time that they lock horns this calendar year, after Protektorat finished a commendable third behind his Irish rival in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup – at the end of his second season over fences. Henry de Bromhead’s charge is a commanding 1-2 favourite with Betfair to follow up his devastating 22-length success from 12 months ago in the first British Grade One of the season, with Protektorat the 11-4 second favourite.
However, Alcester trainer Skelton is bullish that his charge will arrive on Merseyside as a much improved model from their last encounter in March.
“I’ve been very happy with his pre-season. He’s got a bit keen and a bit fresh on the gallops, which is what we want to see with him as when he’s starting to get fit he gets like that,” he said.
“One thing to remember about this horse is the fact that he’s had only a couple of runs over three miles and one run over three-and-a-quarter miles.
“On one of those occasions he’s annihilated a field at Aintree (in the Grade Two Many Clouds Chase) and on another he’s finished a very respectable third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and I believe there’s still more to come from this horse at this trip.
“He stays this kind of trip very well, he is not over-raced at these sorts of trips and he is young enough to keep improving. Having said all that, we know how far we’ve got to make up with A Plus Tard and he needs to improve.
“There’s a couple of reasons why he will improve, but Haydock will tell whether he’s able to fully bridge that gap.
“We’re taking A Plus Tard on because I think we have to go left-handed and our chances are enhanced by the fact that it will most likely be slow ground.
“We’re a second-season chaser and I was always giving it a go, I could have said we’d leave him two more weeks and go to the Many Clouds and start odds-on, but there are times when you have to say you have a Grade One horse and take these races on.”
He added: “We’re an underdog and we’re going to put ourselves in the ring and give it our best but if you look at it this race is one of the ‘biggies’ of the year. There are only four Grade One races over this trip this year and they’re all very important.
“I can’t see him taking in a King George this year and he won’t go to Aintree, so really that’s two big races of the year and this is one of them. You want to be in those races for a start and if we can win one it would be brilliant.
“If that gap was three lengths, I might be saying we might have a chance, but it’s actually more like 15 as we saw at Cheltenham. We’re bullish and we know we’re going to go there and run a big race and everything else but we also know that we’re not going to start as favourite and if A Plus Tard beats us we can hardly act like it was a big surprise either. We’re realistic as well as hopeful and if we are beaten we’ll dust ourselves down and go again.
“I think he will love Haydock and for him it’s very much a case of the more rain the better. If we have three inspections and put racing back half an hour to divert around the puddles, I’d be delighted.”
Skelton isn’t afraid to admit that he’s still learning with this horse and one of the main takeaways from his novice chasing career was to avoid right-handed tracks due to a disappointing run at Wincanton.
He explained: “It’s been a real team project to get this horse to the point he’s at, as a three-year-old he was barely rideable and Harry (Skelton) said some choice words when he was unseated off him on his first run for us at Cheltenham. He took a long time to come together but ultimately it has and continues to do so.
“We ran him in a rearranged Dipper Novices’ Chase at Wincanton and he was nearly in the car park. He was fine around Carlisle and ran very well at Sandown too before that, but I just think it got a little bit into his head and I don’t want to do something that forces you to rebuild.
“If we run a lovely race here at Haydock and then decide to chance it at the King George only for it not to go well, you’re then undoing all the good you did and you’ve got a rebuild on your hands with the Gold Cup coming up pretty quickly.”
He added: “I did enter him in the King George just in case – I’d rather have the ticket to be able to go than not – but I’d say it’s highly unlikely as I want to stick to left-handed tracks while the main season is around. If we got to the end of the year and wanted to try right-handed as a tester we could go to Punchestown.
“We’re getting way ahead of ourselves though and we have to focus on the short term, which starts at Haydock.”