Protektorat put himself in the Cheltenham Gold Cup picture with a commanding victory in the Betfair Chase at Haydock on Saturday.
Protektorat is magnificent in the G1 @Betfair Chase— Racing TV (@RacingTV) November 19, 2022
He stamps his class @haydockraces with a stunning win for @DSkeltonRacing & @harryskelton89. Defending champion A Plus Tard pulled-up ?? pic.twitter.com/dHIOmuD4yn
Third behind A Plus Tard at the Festival in March, Dan Skelton’s charge reversed that form in style as Henry de Bromhead’s 1/2 favourite failed to fire and was pulled up three out.
Bristol De Mai led the quintet along as he sought a fourth victory in the race, but as they went down the back for the second time, Harry Skelton was moving his mount closer to the pace and alongside Nigel Twiston-Davies’ gallant grey.
Skelton remained motionless as the field turned for home and simply had to bide his time to catch up with the game Bristol De Mai before cruising into the lead and coming home at a canter.
It was just the winner’s fourth attempt at a distance of three miles and above.
“We didn’t have a plan for beyond this, we are looking at the Gold Cup in the spring because we ran in the race last year,” said Dan Skelton.
“But I always felt this horse could improve. He’s not an old horse, he has had three goes at the trip – once it didn’t count it was an afterthought, once was the Gold Cup, and once was at Aintree.
“This today was his fourth go and he is allowed to improve for a lot of reasons. I’m chuffed to bits, it’s absolutely magic.”
On future plans he added: “I said in my Racing Post stable tour I may go to the Fleur De Lys Chase at Lingfield during the Winter Million weekend (January 22nd), or the Cotswolds Chase (at Cheltenham on January 28th), but he won’t be going to the King George, no way.
“Today is a big stepping stone, but the favourite underperformed. We’re going to have to cross swords with them again when they’re on a better day. It’s always a strong division this and we’re proud to have one right up there.”
Harry Skelton added: “That was unbelievable, I’m not that old, but I’ve never had that feeling.
“He’s just progressing and getting better. The way he jumped down the back, that’s what really good horses can do. It was a magnificent training performance first time up. Make no mistake, we were ready today, we’re not going to make any hiding of that, we knew today might be our day and it was.
“This horse wasn’t easy when we got him from France, we ran him in a hood and he unseated me in at Cheltenham in a juvenile hurdle, he was a bit mad. But everyone has stuck by him and just let us produce him and that’s the dream.”
Henry de Bromhead was at a loss to to explain what he described as a performance that was “too bad to be true” from his Gold Cup hero A Plus Tard in defence of his Betfair Chase crown at Haydock.
The Cheveley Park Stud-owned eight-year-old was imperious in winning on Merseyside 12 months ago, sauntering 22 lengths clear under Rachael Blackmore.
It was a similar story at Cheltenham in March as A Plus Tard sprinted up the hill to mark himself down as the clear king of the division.
He was unsurprisingly all the rage for his eagerly-awaited return to action as the 1/2 favourite, but it was clear from a relatively early stage that it was not going to be plain sailing.
Eight months on from becoming the first female rider to win the Gold Cup, Blackmore settled A Plus Tard at the rear of the five-runner field, but had started to ask questions of her mount leaving the back straight.
He was already in trouble when a slow leap at the fourth fence from home sealed his fate, with Blackmore quickly admitting defeat and pulling up before the next obstacle.
“I was never that happy, to be honest,” she said afterwards. “When I did decide we were going to pull up, he stopped very quickly under me – he was very easy to pull up
“He seems fine trotting back, but I was never that happy throughout the race.”
Asked whether she felt the soft ground was a factor, Blackmore added: “Possibly, but he’s a very classy horse and I was hoping that wouldn’t have been an issue that would make him pull up.”
De Bromhead was similarly perplexed and will give A Plus Tard a full check up on his return to Ireland.
“It was obviously too bad to be true. That’s the best thing to say I think for the moment,” said the Coy Waterford handler.
“We’ll get him home and see. He was in mighty form coming over, but he looked laboured didn’t he?
“Maybe the ground (was a factor), but I don’t want to make excuses. It was too bad to be true and that’s it.
“He seems fine, but we’ll scope him and check him. We can’t say anything (about future plans), we need to go through everything.
“It was very unlike him.”