Jumping for joy: Harry Skelton crowned champion jockey as Hughes runs out of races
Harry Skelton will officially be crowned champion jump jockey at Sandown on Saturday after the clock ran out on Brian Hughes at Perth.
Defending champion Hughes started the day 10 winners behind Skelton, who was in action at Exeter’s evening fixture.
Hughes had seven booked rides in Scotland, but after managing only one winner it became numerically impossible for him to catch Skelton.
The duo have been locked in an enthralling battle for the jockeys’ title, with Skelton reeling in early leader Hughes in the last few weeks before seizing the advantage at Southwell on April 13.
The champion-elect chalked up his 150th winner as part of a double at Ludlow on Wednesday – and with only Hughes only having six rides on Friday and one on Saturday, he cannot make up the lost ground.
All but a handful of Skelton’s winning mounts have been trained by his brother Dan, and the rider pinpointed the team’s victory with Shannon Bridge in a handicap hurdle at Ascot on February 20 as the moment he realised he could be in with a title shot.
He said: “I knew the horses were in good form, I knew I had the ammunition to do it. I can’t thank all the staff at Lodge Hill (Skelton’s yard) enough.
“Shannon Bridge was the turning point when I knew we had some fresh horses to go at, that is a big plus, horses that hadn’t been racing over the winter and I knew Dan’s planning.
“I know what he’s capable of, when he’s got something in his mind, you’d be doing well to get it out of his head.
“Once I had a sniff of something, I’m a competitor and I was willing to give it my all. Shannon Bridge was the point when I knew I was close enough that it was possible.”
Skelton was eager to pay tribute to all involved at the Alcester yard, including assistant trainer Tom Messenger who has done plenty of driving for the rider around the country in his search for winners.
He said: “I hope the people who have helped me get here will realise it might be my name there, but it’s a part of them as well.
“All the staff at Lodge Hill, I hope they can get a kick out of it and realise it is down to them.
“Tom Messenger has been great the whole way through. Quite often he’s the one to deal with me when we get back in the car when things haven’t gone to plan. He’s the first one to hear about it, but he’d always put me right and we’d move on to the next thing.”
Skelton also hailed former jockey Ian Popham, who is now his agent.
Speaking on a call hosted by Great British Racing he added: “Ian has been amazing. he’s my best friend and grafted hard over the last eight to 12 weeks, he’s done all he can to try to get me as many good rides and winners as he can. I think this is a testament to him as well – I think that stands well for his career. I’m very grateful for what he’s done.”
Hughes has had over 200 mores rides than Skelton through the season, which got off to a late start on July 1 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Skelton admits the rivals do not meet all that often, but he paid tribute to Hughes’ dedication, hailing him as a “fierce competitor” as well as a champion.
He said: “Brian is up in the north, I’m down here in the south so we don’t cross all that much.
“Brian is a fierce competitor, he is a winner and he is a champion – no one can ever take that away from him. I have the utmost respect for him.
“He’s had over 200 more rides than me – that takes an awful lot of drive, a lot of dedication to do what he does. I take my hat off to what he does – I think I’ve been busy, but he’s had 200 more, it’s incredible really.
“At the end of the day, he is a champion and I’d like my name to be just underneath his.”
The newly-crowned champion is fully aware of his achievement, according to his brother, who has been with him every step of the way.
“It’s a lifetime ambition. Every young jockey walks into the weighing room and hopes one day to be champion jockey,” said the trainer.
“He’s done that and he’s well aware of the enormity of it. He’s very proud to have done it and I’m very proud of him.
“The people who have worked hard to get him to this point, not just this season but all throughout his career – you can’t do that without the support of a lot of different people, a lot of family, a lot of friends, owners, staff, everybody.
“He gets the trophy, but there’s a lot of people who have made that happen and he is very grateful to them all for that.
“I’m just very proud of him.”
The best videos delivered daily
Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox