Brian Hughes lost his title of Champion Jockey over jumps in the UK to Harry Skelton last season. The feat on Skelton’s part was even more impressive because most of the mounts he got the leg-up on came for his trainer brother Dan at the family stables in the West Midlands area of England.

Hughes, meanwhile, essentially has the choice of rides from all the top yards in the North of England and Scotland. That collective might couldn’t make right on this occasion, but that probably says less about the quality of National Hunt thoroughbreds in that region and more about the strength-in-depth of the horses in the Skelton stable.

Of the five Grade 1 successes Skelton enjoyed in the 2020-21 jumps season, four were a family affair. He is the regular jockey of the talented but keen racing Allmankind, smart prospect My Drogo and top mare Roksana to name but a few. These rides brought multiple successes to Team Skelton with the prospect of more to come from them in future.

Skelton also had a few choice rides for Paul Nicholls, who was again crowned the UK Champion National Hunt Trainer. They included partnering Politologue to a second Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown Park over the winter. 

The Skelton strike rate of 22% highlights how he made more of fewer rides with quality winning out over quantity. Hughes, meanwhile, had around 200 more mounts but 10 fewer victories, so only had 16% success in the saddle during the 2020-21 campaign. There was also no Grade 1 wins for him and fewer in black type events.

Magnanimous in defeat, Hughes used his MansionBet blog to congratulate Skelton on becoming Champion Jockey. The pair resume their battle already, as there is very little off-season in British National Hunt horse racing with just a few days in-between one campaign ending and another beginning.

The relentless pace of life in equine sport also comes with the greater risk of injury for jumps jockeys. Unlike riders of Flat thoroughbreds, Hughes and Skelton have obstacles to get the horses they ride over without falling off. 

Time on the sidelines can thus make or break any rider’s chances of being champion again. Harry Cobden, the stable jockey at Nicholls’ Ditcheat yard, has been rehabbing injuries but that is not the only reason why they have to sit out. 

Skelton starts the new campaign and his defence of the crown serving a suspension picked up for the ride he gave Enrilo in the race best known as the Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown Park. That gives Hughes an early advantage and his rival on the backfoot.

Richard Johnson, the previous four-time Champion Jockey, has also called time on his career in the saddle this spring. Without that big presence in the weighing rooms of racecourses up and down Britain, it looks very much like a straight fight between Hughes and Skelton for the title this season.