Betfair Chase day for the Skelton yard started out being centred on whether Protektorat could become a back-to-back winner of the Grade 1 contest at Haydock, but it ended up with a different focus revolving around Grey Dawning.
For while Protektorat was unable to land a blow behind Royale Pagaille in the feature race, then six-year-old Grey Dawning, owned by ROA member Robert Kirkland, was motoring to a career-best score in a graduation chase that also happened to be the 1,000th winner trained by Dan and ridden by his brother Harry.
The son of Flemensfirth was picked up as a store for €40,000 at the Derby Sale in 2020, and in the red silks of Kirkland proceeded to win five of his first six starts, most notably the Grade 2 Leamington Novices’ Hurdle at Warwick.
He was then given a crack at Grade 1 level in the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at the Grand National meeting, only to frustratingly fall at the ninth.
After finishing third on his chasing debut behind Stay Away Fay at Exeter, a couple of weeks later Grey Dawning thumped his Haydock rivals by nine and a half lengths and up, subsequently rising 7lb in the handicap to an official rating of 144.
He was due to contest a novice chase at Cheltenham just as Owner Breeder went to press, with Warwick in the middle of this month a possible first port of call in 2024.
Grey Dawning, named by Kirkland’s wife, has been one of six runners this season for the owner, four of the others – including Warwick maiden hurdle winner Glorious Fun – being with Skelton, and one with Toby Lawes.
Kirkland says: “I got into owning racehorses originally via partnerships. The first horse was called High Edge Grey, trained by Ken Oliver, with the lead partner being JB Stone. He won the Charlie Hall Memorial Chase at Wetherby – that was in 1988.
“Then I was in partnerships run by John Prideaux, whom Ken Oliver introduced me to, and later on we used Howard Johnson as our trainer.
“Subsequently, I wished to have my own horses outright, so I moved to trainers further south.”
The half-dozen to have run in Kirkland’s own colours this season are among 56 the Quarndon, Derbyshire-based owner has had in training since 2000, and he has nine currently on the go in various stages of their careers, seven with Skelton and two with Lawes.
Kirkland remarks: “You could call me an itinerant owner! In addition to Ken Oliver and Howard Johnson, and at present Toby Lawes and Dan Skelton, I have had horses with John Mackie, Tim Vaughan, Paul Webber, Emma Lavelle, Henry Daly and Nicky Henderson.
“The choice in each case was to mutual satisfaction; mainly I was introduced by a friend or colleague.
“I’m seriously happy with the ones with Toby Lawes, and am patient and happy with the ones with Dan.”
For Derby County fan Kirkland, success on the track is what constitutes magical moments, though he has especially good reason to remember June 30, 2019 as it yielded a double at his local track, Uttoxeter, courtesy of Brave Eagle in the Summer Cup and Bold Record in a maiden hurdle.
He adds: “I enjoy seeing the progression of horses as they get older and mature, they bring some of the best moments of ownership.
“By far the worst is fatalities. I remember my first with a good young horse called Gods Squad, who John Mackie trained. He suffered a fatal injury at Chepstow in March 1997, which was an awful day – it put my wife off racing for over 15 years.
“Much more recently, there was also Ballyglass, he was a very nice horse too with Toby Lawes, but sadly we lost him at Doncaster in January.”
For all the associated risks that come with owning jumpers, as opposed to Flat horses, however, Kirkland is a National Hunt man through and through, and much prefers that branch of the sport.
Excitingly, while admitting to not being that into, or knowledgeable, about breeding, he is also now the proud owner of a filly foal out of one of his former racemares, and winners, Gaia Du Gouet.
The mare won her first start in Kirkland’s colours, a novice hurdle at Uttoxeter, before suffering a heavy fall at Warwick last year, after which she was covered by Dink, who stands at the Skeltons’ Alne Park Stud in Warwickshire.
Kirkland is now retired, having been involved in the construction industry, so has good scope to get to the races to watch his runners, and visit them at their yards, albeit the nature of not knowing that far in advance when you are going to have a runner does sometimes mean that other commitments are made.
“I unfortunately didn’t get to Haydock to see Grey Dawning,” says Kirkland, speaking to Owner Breeder last month.
“I had already made plans to go and see Derby, so watched the race on a television at the ground before the game.”
For the record, a 2-1 victory over Bristol Rovers made it a fine Saturday sporting double for the 77-year-old.
Asked for a New Year racing wish, Kirkland replies: “Probably winning what used to be called the Hennessy Gold Cup. The aforementioned High Edge Grey was the ante-post favourite many years ago – the race after he’d won the Charlie Hall – but he slipped and fell after the 14th fence, so it has always been in the back of my mind.”
Whether the upwardly mobile Grey Dawning – who would very nearly have made the cut for the Newbury race last month with his rating – could be the one to take the thought from the back of his mind to the front remains to be seen.
But Kirkland certainly marches into the New Year with a nice little red army of promising youngsters, and hopefully a few more magical moments await him.