Words by Schöffel Country

February 29, 2024


With the highly anticipated Cheltenham Festival fast approaching, we were incredibly lucky recently to spend a day with one of Britain’s top jockeys, Harry Skelton, and learn more about his career, family, and inspirations.

In 2009, at the age of 19, Harry became the youngest winner of the Irish Grand National, on the Bob Buckler-trained Niche Market. Since then, he has won 9 Grade 1 races (including 2 at Cheltenham). In 2021 he rode 152 winners to claim his first Champion Jump Jockey title.

We travelled to the heart of the Warwickshire countryside to meet Harry at his brother’s training yard, Dan Skelton Racing, where Team Skelton is set across two yards. It offers some of the finest facilities for racehorse training in the UK.

Who was your greatest influence?

My biggest influence growing up was my dad, Nick Skelton. He’s a two-time Olympic gold medallist in showjumping.

Tell us about your first pony

My first pony was actually my dad’s and my brother’s first pony, so we all learned to ride on Oxo. He was a Welsh Section B – a cross – and by the time I got him, he was nearly 30 years old. A pony of a lifetime, for sure. He was 34 when he passed away and we kept a piece of his tail and some nice photos of him.

What’s the best part of being a Jockey?

My favourite aspect is the adrenaline; I wish you could bottle it.

Tell us about Niche Market

Niche Market is 23 years old, and he’s retired here – I’ve been with him for 10 years. I won the Irish Grand National with him in 2009 and I was the youngest jockey to win the national. In the winter he comes into the barn to keep him out of the cold and wet and in the summer he’s out on the grass and paddocks. He gets a walk twice a day, but I stopped riding him three years ago as he was getting too wild – he thought he was six again! He’s a great horse to have about and look after.

How did it feel to win the Irish National?

A blur. I was on a plane and straight back to work after, so it was very brief really. But to win such a prestigious award at such a young age, I probably didn’t realise at the time how big it was. Especially in Ireland, which was a great thrill. Certainly one I’ll always remember.

What is your favourite racecourse?

My favourite racecourse is one of our locals, Warwick. It’s a great jumping track with five fences down the back straight – a real test for National Hunt horses. The fences come up really thick and fast, which is a great buzz for a jockey.

Is there a horse past or present you’d love to ride again?

A horse that I’d love to ride again in the past would have to be Kauto Star. He was the greatest horse that I’ve ever seen. He won multiple Grade 1s and he won over 2, 3 and 3¼ miles in the Gold Cup – many King Georges and Tingle Creeks – he did it all. The one I’d love to ride now would be Constitution Hill. He’s already a winner of a champion hurdle and he looks like he has the world at his feet.

What makes these horses so special?

I think what made Kauto Star so special was his ability to adapt. He adapted to any situation of any race, he relaxed very well, and he was never keen on exposing energy. I think the same of Constitution Hill. It doesn’t matter where you ride him from the look of things. You can ride him at the front or the back, if they’re going too fast or too slow, it didn’t matter to him – he can do anything. That’s what sets apart the top-class horses from the others.

How have you been preparing for Cheltenham festival?

With the preparation, obviously you do get a bit anxious leading up to it, mainly with the horses you’re going to be riding as you want to get them there and keep them injury free. For me, it’s really just about going through the horses I’ve ridden and the other horses I’m going to be taking on – finding out their strengths and weaknesses leading up to the races. Us jockeys are very busy anyway. We’ll be racing right up to the day, so you don’t really get much chance to sit back and put all your thought into Cheltenham. I’m just trying to take every day as it comes and treat it the same as any other day.

What makes Cheltenham so special?

Cheltenham Festival is so special to anyone in the industry – it’s our Olympics. It’s the most important four days in our calendar. It’s certainly a place where if you’re lucky enough to ride a winner, you get a feeling like no other meeting can give you throughout the year. The atmosphere and the build-up is just electric really. From the moment you wake up on Tuesday morning, everyone is buzzing.

This year, Cheltenham Festival will be taking place from Tuesday 12th March until Friday 15th March.