The chase for the Jockeys' title was a captivating feature of the final weeks of the National Hunt season just concluded. The whole thing starts again at Uttoxeter on Saturday.
Warwickshire can take great pride from one of its own securing the Championship. Harry Skelton is a worthy champion, after a run of form in the last 8 weeks that was formidable. The sparring between him and northerner Brian Hughes was a joy to watch.
They could not be more different though, both in style and powerbase. Take a look at the statistics behind each's season.
Harry Skelton's 152 winners came from 682 rides, amassing an impressive £1,895,722 in win & place prize money. His most frequented tracks were Cheltenham (47), Kempton (22), Sandown (32) and each of Warwick and Uttoxeter (51).
His season was dominated by riding for brother Dan, who provided 614 of his rides. With the exception of 15 rides for former gaffer Paul Nicholls, no other trainer supplied more than 10 rides, and he rode for a sparing 27 in total. Whilst Dan is riding on the crest of a wave, this formula will continue working very well; if the Skelton Snr star wanes, Hughes and others would be in with a great shout of toppling him.
The Skelton season is not a front runner. Whilst Hughes had 30 winners in the bag by the beginning of October, Skelton had just half that total. He was still 13 adrift at the turn of the year, and reached his century of winners a full month later than Hughes, on March 7. But March was a definitive month for both riders. Despite a winnerless Cheltenham, Skelton amassed 31 winners to Hughes' 21. He drew level with the northerner on April 13, by which time the firepower exerted from Alcester was always going to carry him through. A definitive four days, launched with a four-timer on March 29 at Stratford and a treble at Southwell 2 days later added 10 winners in 5 days.
Hughes, by contrast, has taken a defensive stance toward his trainer backers, spreading his risk among many. This is in part the nature of the smaller yards that populate the north of England and Borders. There are no fancy retainers for riders up here. A Needs Must approach is required, which makes Hughes the workhorse of the Weighing Room. No-one else comes close to the volume of rides he secured, at 890, of which 524 reached the frame, 142 in first place.
The great divide between north and south is no better illustrated than through Hughes' performance. 15 rides at Cheltenham, just 5 at Ascot, 4 at Kempton and none at Sandown are part of the explanation for the wide discrepancy in earnings between the two riders. Hughes amassed £1,260,148 from 208 more rides than Skelton, but his principal supporters are running horses are Carlisle (66 rides), Newcastle (72) and Sedgefield (75), rather than the Grade I courses of the South.
The roster of big wins confirms this divide. Hughes' greatest triumph was in Aintree's Many Clouds Chase, a Grade II, whilst Skelton, with the weight of affluent South and Midlands businessmen behind him, enjoyed a clutch of Grade Is, including Novice chases at Sandown, Kempton and Aintree with Allmankind, a Tingle Creek with Politologue, and a Mersey Hurdle for good measure.
In the saddle, the two have marked differences in style, although you'd be happy for either to ride for you. Hughes, formerly with ambitions to be a Flat rider, is neater but Skelton's busy finish motivates horses to conclude their races well.
In a post McCoy-Johnson era, their success augurs well for a fresh generation of riders to inspire youngsters graduating from the Pointing ranks.