21 December 2008
There is no better moment in sport when young talent breaks through and claims glory as its own. At Ascot, Binocular and Punchestowns did it in their pursuit of hurdling championship honours, but even the thrill of their victories didn’t beat the happy uninhibited commitment with which 19-year-old Harry Skelton set sail for five fences from home in the BGC Silver Cup Chase.
You will know his surname – father Nick Skelton has long been one of our greatest ever showjumpers – and young Harry has been among the Paul Nicholls training team for the past three seasons. Obviously in terms of technique and experience the boy has a long way to go, but his background and his temperament have always meant he would not be slow in seizing a chance if offered. With Niche Market in front and the Ascot hill beckoning, the chance was now.
The instructions had been “kick for home in Swinley Bottom” and no orders were ever so wholeheartedly adhered to. Hard, hard, Skelton drove. On, on, Niche Market thundered. Round the final turn they still had five- lengths advantage but the pack were closing. At the last Richard Johnson and Monkerhostin were within a couple of lengths with their leader surely in their grasp.
Monkerhostin had won 11 races, Niche Market none. Skelton had won 25 in two seasons, Johnson over 1,500 in 16 years as a jockey. But Monkerhostin was conceding more than two stones and Skelton, still all energy, and carrying only 9st 9lb, was conceding nothing. It wasn’t exactly Ruby Walsh but it had huge compulsion, not to mention a skilful switching of the whip from left hand to right. At the line he had a head advantage, and more than 14,000 people, Ascot’s biggest jumping crowd since their redevelopment, knew they had seen something special.
So, too, did a much wider audience, for this meeting was televised by the BBC’s stylish TV team and walking back up the track was to hope that a recording of Skelton’s moment would be shown to the ‘Bah Humbug’ Scrooges who aim to axe this meeting, and most other jumping, from BBC schedules next year. If they let the tape play they would see three other good reasons to continue, as Nicky Henderson’s stable swept in with Binocular, Punchestowns and Sentry Duty to land a treble.
Sentry Duty’s victory in The Ladbroke and Punchestowns’ majestic 11-length defeat of stablemate Duc De Regnieres in the Long Walk Hurdle were always part of the Ascot card. But Binocular’s thrillingly brilliant turn in the Boylesports International was re-routed from last week’s abandoned Cheltenham card and, since it was then a Channel 4 event, was surely further proof that racing could provide generous business pragmatism as well as real sporting excitement for a TV broadcaster.
I submit that there are few sporting thrills to match a top hurdler in action. A thousand pounds of racehorse skipping 3ft 6in of hurdle at 35 mph is a blend of speed and athleticism that can make Usain Bolt look almost wooden by comparison. Binocular and Tony McCoy have quickly blended into a racing pair able not just to win the forthcoming Champion Hurdle but to take the next two or three after that. My memory takes me all the way back to Sir Ken’s trio in 1952-4 and the way Binocular crosses a hurdle puts him right among that ranking.
At one point in the race Celestial Halo had such a long lead that even JP McManus, Binocular’s iron-nerved owner, was getting palpitations. But then. with hardly a move from his rider, the former French Flat-racer quickened. He flew the second-last and as he came towards the final flight only a blunder could defeat him.
He winged it, and as he did so he did something else which is no small matter in these gloomy times. It set your heart soaring just to see him do it, just to think of what he might do in future.
As the day developed, his stablemate Punchestowns made himself short-priced favourite for the Cheltenham Stayers’ Hurdle with his performance in the Long Walk and Harry Skelton was brought violently back to earth with a crashing fall in Sentry Duty’s Ladbroke. But Binocular had followed Skelton’s lead. He had shown that racing can give you something to shout and smile about. Isn’t that part of what national broadcasters are for?