Dan Skelton left school early to try to make a living in showjumping, then dropped out of university to start work in racing. If that suggests some kind of fickle dilettante, nothing could be more misleading. At 29, Skelton is a meteor among young jumps trainers and unashamedly obsessed by his calling.
“A lot of people go into a business and think they mustn’t become this insular, obsessive creature, because it’s unhealthy,” he says reflectively. “Well, some of the best and most successful people in the world are only good because they’re obsessive.
“Just because you don’t go to the ballet every Saturday doesn’t mean you’re unfulfilled. You can enjoy what you do by being good at it. People get put under social pressure to be a better person. I think that’s bullshit. Be as obsessed as you want.”
It was a passionate speech by a man seldom short of words and opinions.
Even in those remarks, the influence of Paul Nicholls is evident. Skelton was Nicholls’s assistant through the first seven of his championship seasons.
“When I left Ditcheat, I’d spent a third of my life there, so obviously it moulded me,” he explains. “Some people learn by going from trainer to trainer but I learned everything from one man.”
You can see that in his decisive manner around the rapidly growing stables in rural Warwickshire, where he started operations only a year ago. “We did the maths and thought we needed 12 horses to survive,” he recalls. He now has 64, divided across two yards, with a third barn being built to accommodate an additional 20.
Less than a year after his first winner, Mister Grez at Ffos Las last October 13, Skelton is approaching his first half-century. Plainly, too, he is not afraid to change his mind. Having advertised his own racing syndicate, and gathered support, he scrapped the idea as too complex and sold the three horses separately. Highclere, John Hales, Chris Giles, Dai Walters and Sir Alex Ferguson are among his well-known patrons, but he has also sourced enthusiastic new owners.
I’m happy to set targets but also happy not to tell anyone what they are
Though he now employs 25 staff, headed by the former amateur jockey Josh Guerriero, at heart this is a family operation. Dan’s wife, Grace, administers the finances and his brother, Harry, is stable jockey. Across the road in the quiet village of Shelfield Green is the man who made it all possible.
An Olympic gold medallist and the most recognisable face of British showjumping, Nick Skelton initially encouraged his elder son to follow him into his sport. Now, it is through his financial backing and astute planning that both sons are ensconced in a racing stable that should be the envy of their generation.
“Showjumping was just part of life, as far back as I can remember,” Skelton says. “I grew up in Shropshire and Dad was with us only on Mondays and Tuesdays before he went off to shows every Wednesday. Mum and Dad got divorced but there was never a time when I felt Dad wasn’t part of our lives.
“I left school straight after GCSEs because I had this nagging belief I should follow Dad and carve a career in showjumping. But there was no real backing for young people in the sport at that time. In September, I said to Dad, ‘This isn’t going to happen, I’ve got to go back to school’. Luckily, they took me back and I went on to start a design degree at de Montfort University in Leicester.”
By then, however, Skelton had crossed the divide and focused his keenest interest on a different sport. “My best mate, Tom Ellis, kept a few point-to-pointers and I helped to get them fit,” he recalls.
“We didn’t know what we were doing – they either walked or galloped flat out – but I enjoyed it and eventually got one of my own. It won first time out, more by luck than judgement. I’d trained him with the Martin Pipe philosophy that the only way to win is to be fitter than the rest. That much was rudimentary but I had no idea what to do next. I ran him again three weeks later and he just died on me at the last.
“Even at that stage, I wanted to be doing things better, to learn more about it. John Hales owned Dad’s showjumpers at the time and, of course, he had his racehorses with Paul, so I asked him if he could fix for me to spend a week there. I followed John down through Bristol to Ditcheat on Paul’s owners’ day and, that week, I saw a whole new approach to it.
“Back at home, I was about to start my second year at university and I remember being sat in Dad’s kitchen when he had an exchange of texts with Paul, with a loose offer of a job at Ditcheat. I asked what type of job and the message came back – ‘We’ll make one up for him’. I left university that night. Six weeks later, Bobby McNally left Ditcheat and Paul made me his assistant.”
Was he lucky? Certainly, to have the right connections to open such doors. But Nicholls deserves credit here for spotting something in that first, trial week. He has not got where he is today by showering jobs on folk as favours. He identified Skelton because he was bright, energetic, determined, keen to learn. And he was proved right.
“I knew horses and jumping but nothing else,” Skelton admits. “For the first three years, I never really had an opinion on racing but I listened a lot and learned well. To me, there was never an hour that wasn’t for working. I didn’t know about delegation, not at first, so I ran round doing everything myself.
“I had always loved competing and loved winning. I’d learned that from Dad and I had it straight away at Paul’s. In those early days we just seemed to win all the time. I always knew that would be the hardest thing about setting up on my own. Even if we were winning, we wouldn’t be winning at the same level.”
There was, then, a pleasing sense of reality when Skelton made the decision to leave Ditcheat after nine years. “We got planning permission early last year and it all happened quite quickly,” he says. “I felt I could have had a job for life with Paul, we got on well enough. But I was so lucky to have the backing of my Dad in this venture. What kind of coward would I have been to just stay the safe route?”
Grace was pregnant with their daughter, Florence, when they made the move to the midlands. They had a house waiting but found themselves living in one room, while a bedroom became a temporary office.
“Grace just gets on with things,” Skelton says. “She’s a qualified lawyer and very intelligent but she is much better than me at prioritising. If I have a list of jobs on a Monday morning, I want them done by Monday night. Grace will put them in order but they all get done.”
His gallop, a five-furlong climb with turns and a dip, was finished in time last year, though only just. “It was completed in July, when all the horses we had were in,” he recalls.
“The hill we have here was crucial to the plan but I must have walked up and down it 100 times before we decided on the route the gallop would take. I also went on Google Earth and checked out the gallops of all the top stables.”
Skelton had time to wonder if he had got things right during a six-week wait between his first runner and first winner.
“It got to me a bit,” he admits. “The horses were running well but they were moderate. It was a huge relief when Mister Grez won, because people stopped watching me.”
Just before Christmas, they were watching him for the right reasons when Willow’s Saviour won the Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot, a third successive victory since joining Skelton from Charlie Longsdon. Injury ruled him out of the spring festivals but he is set to return this month in a novice chase at Cheltenham’s opening fixture.
“I want to go to a big track to see if chasing will be his game,” the trainer explains. “If not, we’ll re-think and go for all the big handicap hurdles. He’s a much more imposing horse, now. Last year he’d walk past and you wouldn’t notice, but he looks the part now and he has the mentality of a good horse, too.
“Naturally, we need more like him but Willow just happened to improve 30lb for coming here. We can’t do that with every horse. I’d obviously love it if owners just came to me with a budget and asked me to buy one, but I don’t want to put anyone off at this stage of my career.”
Skelton is still at the stage of acquiring patrons but he is prepared for losing some along the way. “In business, some relationships blossom and some wither,” he says. “You can’t keep all your owners forever. The greatest example I saw was Clive Smith, when Kauto Star came to the end.
“Paul recognised there was a breakdown, it was bad for the morale of the team and had to end. Some failing relationships are acceptable. I don’t think I’m easy to fall out with but I’m sure there will be some who don’t like the way I go about things.”
Nobody could criticise his dedication or motivation, and few would be unimpressed by the facilities he has installed at Lodge Hill. At the foot of the gallop is a two-furlong exercise loop, raised off the ground by a five-inch drain that ensures its constant availability. The stables have rubber floors, kind to horses’ legs. Ice boots are used after exercise and a solarium in the main barn was an early priority.
“We said the other day it must soon come to a point where we stop building and start making some money, rather than spending it all the time,” he says. Such amenities, though, will serve him well in the increasingly competitive arena of jump racing. So, too, will his constant quest for knowledge and wisdom.
“I’ve been to foal and yearling sales, recently, though I seemed to like everything that David Redvers liked,” he says.
“My aim is to create our own supply chain of young horses. Long term, I see us as being like Marks & Spencer, offering anything the customer wants.”
What they want most of all is winners, of course, and Skelton’s start to his second season promises a steady supply. “We have lots of well-bred types to come out later,” he reveals. “The unraced stock this season is different class to last year – in fact, it’s five leagues above.”
He adds: “I’m not a tightly wound person. I don’t think you’d see me and say, ‘He needs to calm down’. But, yes, the job dominates me, just as it does Paul.
“In my head, I’ve got targets for every horse, for this week, next month and the whole season. I’m happy to set targets but also happy not to tell anyone what they are.”