Ryanair or Aintree now the next target for Protektorat

Skelton: ‘He isn’t going for a Gold Cup unless something ridiculous happens.’

Dan Skelton has all but ruled out a Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup bid with Protektorat – but he could still line up in the Ryanair Chase if showing his well-being prior to the Festival.

The nine-year-old has finished third (2022) and fifth (2023) in his two previous cracks at the blue riband but, after only finishing a well-held third in Newbury’s Denman Chase won by Shishkin, connections will now change tack and seek an alternative to the Friday feature.

One option is to drop back in distance for a Ryanair Chase renewal that has an open feel due to the absence of Willie Mullins’ dual winner Allaho.

Protektorat had no answer to Shishkin at Newbury
Protektorat had no answer to Shishkin at Newbury (Jacob King/PA)

However, Skelton is willing to let his charge provide the biggest guide as to whether an outing at Prestbury Park is on the cards, or if they will wait for the Aintree Bowl over a course and distance he has previously tasted success.

“I’ve spoken to all the owners and at the moment we are not going for a Gold Cup,” said Skelton.

“We’ve got the entry and there are no more scratching stages, so I shall leave him in until confirmations. But he isn’t going for a Gold Cup unless something ridiculous happens.

“The options are Ryanair or Aintree. He will be going to the Ryanair if he is super well and we really think it is the right thing, so we will be led by the horse.

“That race has taken a funny shape and how does he compare against the others in there? I believe Hitman is going for the race, but how short in the betting is Hitman? We will take a look at the Ryanair and if we don’t go there, then we will wait for Aintree.”

Protektorat was a Grade One winner when landing the Betfair Chase
Protektorat was a Grade One winner when landing the Betfair Chase (Nigel French/PA)

Despite seemingly giving up on Gold Cup ambitions for this year, Skelton retains plenty of faith in his star stayer, who provided him with Grade One glory when landing Haydock’s Betfair Chase in 2022.

That was the last time the gelding entered the winner’s enclosure, but he has been campaigned much more aggressively this term, with his Newbury run the fourth of his season so far – something his handler envisages paying dividends at some stage.

Skelton continued: “What you have to remember with this horse is, he is running really well, we are running him more often and he’s maintaining his form, he’s just that little nugget short of being top, top.

“A race is made up of the winner, but it is also made up of horses that push the winners and you must not lose sight of the fact he has danced a lot of big dances, he will dance a lot more to come and he will be winning some big races, there’s no doubt about that – it’s just very hard at the top level.”

Protektorat’s Cheltenham participation may still be up in the air, but one of Skelton’s string fully on course for the spring showpiece is star novice chaser Grey Dawning, who will head straight to the Cotswolds having skipped Sandown’s recent Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase.

Grey Dawning has impressed over fences
Grey Dawning has impressed over fences (Nigel French/PA)

A winner of the Grade Two Hampton Novices’ Chase last month, Skelton would like to continue plying the talented seven-year-old’s trade at three miles, with the sure-footed grey currently a best price of 5-1 for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase on the second day of the Festival.

“He will go straight to Cheltenham now and I have a slight preference for the three miler, but I have not ruled out the Turners just in case,” explained Skelton.

“The track would suit him better on the Thursday, but the distance might just be better for him on the Wednesday.

“Of those novice chasers this year, he’s our highest rated one and one of the highest rated in the UK, so we have every right to be bullish about him.”

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