By Will Hayler
"From the moment I came into racing, it's all that I ever wanted to achieve"
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 who had steadily edged ahead in his battle in recent days.
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.
The considerable majority 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.”
What a season for Harry Skelton!
With it now confirmed he will be crowned this season's Champion Jumps Jockey at Sandown on Saturday, Harry Skelton has spoken about the inspiration of having a successful Olympian as a father, saying "sport's about winning".
Skelton has been at pains throughout the campaign, and especially after some of the high-profile successes he has enjoyed at Grade One level, to emphasise the family team nature of his victories with brother Dan, the trainer who has successfully supplied most of his winners, and father Nick and wife Bridget rarely far from his side.
A top international showjumper over five different decades of competition, Nick Skelton claimed an individual gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016 at age of 58, before retiring the following year.
"Me and Dan have been brought up in horses and showjumping and racing and sport," Harry Skelton said on Thursday. "It was about winning. It's hard to explain, maybe, to outsiders, but that was our life. That was all we've ever known. When we were younger and Dad didn't win at the show, we asked him 'How did you get on?' and if he didn't win, you weren't succeeding really. If we didn't win... that was just what we set out to do.
"That's just always been our life. It's what we set out to do. We've known no different. Dad didn't have a 9-5 job, didn't work in an office, it was sport and that is sport, you know. Sport's about winning."
Skelton admitted that having not always found winners easy to come by himself had helped to make him appreciate his current success even more.
Referring to the 2012/13 season when he rode just eight winners from 146 rides, he reflected: "It never really crossed my mind to give up. It was a hard year, but it was a year - it wasn't four years or five years. I was very lucky that Dan started up and if he hadn't who knows what might have happened.
"The year before Dan started out I was riding out wherever I could, six days a week, travelling up and down the country and I have so much respect for all them lads in the weighing room that do that now. It is hardship, it is graft, and I'm very lucky that I basically now have to get up, step out of the door, and I'm there at work. I'm very lucky for what I have but you have to get up in the morning and you have to make it happen.
"You can't do it on your own, you need the support of friends and family and trainers and to do it with Dan does make it more special. Once he's got his mind on something, it's pretty hard to take him off that line, if you know what I mean.
"Bridget has been amazing through the whole thing. The last three weeks have been difficult - just mentally. The physical side is not a problem because I'm riding a lot anyway. Mentally I was prepared for it, because I knew what I was going into, but when you really want something it's amazing what the mind can do.
"You do think about it all the time. It's 24-7 in a battle, like it's been, but I've been happy being there because it was something I wanted to achieve. Brian is a fierce competitor. He takes it very seriously, like we all do. He is a winner and he is a champion. Nobody can ever take that away from him. I have the utmost respect for him. We've never had a cross word since the first day we met in the weighing room. He's a champion, but I'd just like my name to be under his now!"
Speaking on a call hosted by Great British Racing, he added: “Ian [Popham, agent] 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.”
Dan Skelton discusses Harry Skelton becoming champion jump jockey
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.”We've teamed up with the Flat experts at Timeform to bring you a FREE copy of their latest book - 50 Flat Horses to Follow throughout the 2021 season. Click here to claim yours for FREE!
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