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Half Mag / Half Zine

It is never easy to judge the merit of a big-race win when an odds-on favourite flops, but that was the last thing on Dan Skelton’s mind as he celebrated Protektorat’s 11-length success in the Betfair Chase at Haydock Park with his brother, Harry, holding the reins.

“When I was [assistant] at Paul Nicholls, we tripped over trophies like this in the dark,” Skelton said, “but it’s a lot harder to win them and to do it with your brother on board is very special. This was the big, big plan.”

Protektorat was nearly 18 lengths behind A Plus Tard – a 1-2 shot for Saturday’s race – in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, but he already looked the likeliest winner on the turn for home as Rachael Blackmore, A Plus Tard’s jockey, started to niggle at the favourite.

Henry de Bromhead’s gelding had not travelled like the best staying chaser in the game at any stage, and after a slow jump at the third-last, Blackmore pulled him up before the next, leaving Protektorat to come home as a convincing winner.

“I always felt this horse could improve,” Skelton said. “I thought he might have been second in the Gold Cup with a better jump [at the last], but today is a big stepping stone. The favourite underperformed and we’re going to have to cross swords with them when they’re on a better day.”

Blackmore and De Bromhead were mystified by A Plus Tard’s disappointing performance, not least as he was an impressive winner of the same race 12 months ago. “I was never that happy, to be honest,” Blackmore said. “When I decided to pull up, he stopped very quickly.”

De Bromhead, meanwhile, said that the Gold Cup winner had been “in mighty form” on the trip from Ireland. “It’s obviously too bad to be true,” De Bromhead added. “He looked laboured. We need to go through it all and see how he is. It’s very unlike him.”

Protektorat’s victory was the seventh Grade One win of Skelton’s training career and by some distance the most prestigious and valuable. It was also a second win on the card for an ownership syndicate that includes Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager, and while Protektorat’s main aim is the Gold Cup – for which he is now around 10-1 alongside A Plus Tard – the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day is a likely target for Hitman, the impressive winner of the card’s graduation chase.

The performances of Protektorat and Hitman were the highlights on an afternoon when the much-anticipated return to action of Constitution Hill, last year’s Supreme Novice Hurdle winner, was postponed and a £16,000 race ended up as a walkover, due to concerns over drying ground at Ascot.

In addition to Constitution Hill, two more of last season’s Festival winners, Edwardstone and L’Homme Presse, were also scratched from their respective events, leaving a total of just 29 runners on Ascot’s £355,000 card. Goshen, who beat Brewin’upastorm in a four-runner Coral Hurdle, and Coole Cody, who won a match for the 1965 Chase, were the main beneficiaries.