By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
Everyone who knows horse racing knows Dan Skelton. Everyone who knows horse racing knows his stable stars, Allmankind, My Drogo, Protektorat, Shan Blue, Nube Negra and Roksana. However, one thing I think they’d be surprised to discover is that, just eight years ago, one of the leading National Hunt racing establishments in the country was a single barn of stables.
Since then, Dan Skelton Racing has evolved to span three properties – Lodge Hill, where the majority of the 130 horses in training are based; Badbury Hall Farm, which offers a quieter environment for the youngsters, fillies and older horses who need a change of scenery, and Alne Park Stud, where they stand exciting stallion Dink.
On Saturday 9th October, I had the pleasure of visiting Lodge Hill and Alne Park Stud and receiving a tour of the facilities from Dan’s wife Grace. Grace’s background is in Law and she told me that, if someone had told her ten years ago that she would be running a stud, she would’ve thought they were insane. This down-to-earth honesty paired with a strong sense of humour and fun made the tour fly by all too quickly. Grace’s inspiring and often hilarious stories, such as how their new dog Dave became a bad influence to their older, more well-behaved dog and caused Grace to have a rather awkward interaction with a rambler, also named Dave, had me in stitches.
Our tour began up on Lodge Hill’s gallops to watch the second lot, containing My Drogo, Elle Est Belle and Rock Legend, canter up the hill gallop. Against the backdrop of the mist clearing over the surrounding Warwickshire countryside, the sight of all the horses galloping was spectacular.
Lodge Hill has some incredible facilities. They have a higher ratio of ground-staff to horses than most yards and a great deal of emphasis is placed on the horses’ welfare. To facilitate this, they have wash-boxes, heat lamps and a water treadmill where saltwater is pumped in at four degrees. This is extremely effective for the horses’ muscles, especially with the heat lamps overhead. Dan’s father Nick used this combination to help Big Star prepare for winning show jumping gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
A particularly interesting piece of equipment that they adopted from show jumping was their Equusir best Box. Horses stand inside of it for twenty minutes (well, not Shan Blue anymore as he’s managed to break it twice) and they are scanned all over with light and UV rays. It pinpoints spots of tension in the horse, which could be a sign of an injury. Roksana is an example of when it has been particularly useful. Grace said that Dan is convinced it has saved horses’ lives.
My favourite horse trained by Dan Skelton is Nube Negra and Grace took me to meet him. She explained that he can sometimes be difficult and have a bit of a temper, which he inherited from his dam, Manly Dream. He was happy enough to have a few pats from me before Heidi, his work rider, got him ready to go out with the third lot. She seemed to have a really great relationship with him. My other favourite horse from Dan’s is Beakstown. I saw him finish fifth at the Cheltenham Festival in March 2020 but he had last season off with an injury. It was brilliant to meet him and find out about his personality from his work rider Andy. He knows Beakstown very well and told me that he can be spooky and silly at times. One of the highlights of my trip was posing for a photo with these two wonderful horses.
After waving Beakstown off with the third lot, we drove over to Alne Park. As well as the stud buildings on this site, there is a one thousand metre deep-sand gallop, an arena, jumping lanes and a grass gallop, which is used limitedly. Beakstown would do fifteen minutes in the arena to warm up and then gallop a loop of the deep sand on each rein.
At the stud, we went straight to meet the man himself – Dink. The two words Grace used to describe him beforehand were “lamb” and “dude”, which completely summed him up! Anyone who knows me, knows how excited I was to be meeting Dink. He was content with munching on his hay as we stood in his stable, occasionally lifting his head for a bit of fuss.
Dink stands at 16.1hh (hands high) exactly and is by high-class sire Poliglote, sire of Politologue, Don Poli and Sire De Berlais as well as 2012 Prix De Le Arc De Triomphe winner Selemia. He raced in Spain and the highlight of his career was finishing third in the Spanish Derby. The yard had already achieved success with Nube Negra and, with a few of his other progeny in the stable, they liked what they saw. Dink was standing at Haras de la Barelière in the south of France but had only covered eight to ten mares each season over the last few years. He wasn’t getting the quantity of mares he deserved there and a plan formed in Grace’s mind. She offered to buy him, completely unseen, and he was soon on the lorry heading over to England. Accompanying him was Manly Dream, Nube Negra’s dam, who has been covered by Walk In The Park this season, and she was the one who misbehaved – Dink was good as gold.
“I suppose Dink came to the party in the middle of the season, really. He was a bit of an unknown to most British breeders at the time,” Grace told me, “He actually didn’t join us until the end of January so, by the time he had been quarantined and did all of the things he does, he was covering.” There was very little time for Grace to put into place any promotion, stallion parades or even talk about him with potential clients. “We had to really hit the ground running with it so it was a steep learning curve but, at the same time, it has been an adventure. We’re really excited about the expansion there has been at the stud this year. Last year, we foaled ten mares and covered fifty-one with this fella [Dink], this absolute gentleman.”
Dink really was a pleasure to be around – calm, even-tempered and gentle. I loved spending time with him. He has a wonderful relationship with Grace. She said how relieved she was that he has been the ultimate professional and has been the perfect stallion to start their stud. He is the most incredible looking horse. He has an excellent physique and he really stamps his progeny with his good looks.
Grace offered us one of Dink’s progeny to look out for, “A lovely filly that I’m really looking forward to coming and seeing up through the ranks is a filly called I Look How I Look and the way she looks is really very nice. She’s young but she’s just like her dad in that she’s correct, she’s got plenty of bone and she’s well-balanced. Obviously, she’s a young filly but she’s exciting. I think she’s really exciting.”
Our final stop on the tour was to meet the rabble of weanling foals. They were so adorable, friendly and well-handled. Amongst them was Duke, Dink’s full brother. He was really inquisitive and Grace said she thought, when he was born, that he’d eventually turn grey, but he currently has a matching dark coat like his sire and brother. There were a couple of gorgeous Highland Reel fillies and they had similar white markings on their forehead to the sire. One was called Blossom, named by Dan and Grace’s daughter. Another foal was called Lumpy and Grace told us the hard-as-nails, don’t-mess-with-me-or-you’ll-be-sorry story about how this colt got his name.
The spring looks like it will be an exciting time for the stud, “We’re looking at foaling, I think we could end up with between thirty-five and fifty mares here. We’ve expanded our foaling facilities. We’ve got an onsite vet here now; we’ve got an onsite lab here now. It’s hugely exciting and I can anticipate his book being even bigger this year. It has been a terrific start and he’s a delight to work with.” The new lab is where the placenta cool box is located and, yes, it is as gross as it sounds!
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Alne Park Stud. It was an honour to meet Dink and I can’t wait to see more of his progeny on the racetrack. He has the most amazing personality and good looks, which get passed down to his offspring. Hopefully, he is very successful in the future. Thank you so much to Grace and the team for the brilliant tour and allowing us to come and see behind the scenes at Dan Skelton Racing. Best of luck for the new season!