With the curtain set to rise on the biggest stage of National Hunt racing, the spectators are primed with their tickets and the stars of the show are making their final preparations.
‘Everyone judges you on four days at the Cheltenham Festival,’ jockey Harry Skelton says. ‘It is the Olympics of our sport.’
Skelton, son of double Olympic show jumping champion Nick, is having a fantastic season in the saddle, riding 146 winners and putting the pressure on three-time Champion Jockey Richard Johnson at the top of the standings.
Sportsmail spent time with jockey Harry Skelton ahead of the Cheltenham Festival next week
But as the 29-year-old alludes to, the hard work of riding out every morning, missing meals and travelling thousands of miles all comes down to four days of racing in Gloucestershire.
From getting up at the crack of dawn to keeping a close eye on their weight, the life of a jockey is far from glamorous.
Sportsmail went behind the scenes with Skelton to see the daily trials and tribulations of being a jump jockey as he gears up for the showpiece event.
The 29-year-old is the son of double Olympic show jumping champion Nick Skelton
Celebrity Fitness: ROUTINE
The alarm sounds at 5.30am as dawn breaks and Skelton heads to work at his brother’s yard for 6.45am.
Skelton is stable jockey for sibling Dan, 34, and lives just a few miles from his base at Lodge Hill in the beautiful Warwickshire countryside.
After driving into his designated parking space, signalled by his initials painted on the floor, Skelton looks at the board covered in coloured cards to find out which horses he will be working that morning.
Skelton is stable jockey for sibling Dan, 34, and lives just a few miles from his base at Lodge Hill
Riders can exercise up to five lots of horses each day which consists of schooling them over hurdles or fences and riding them out on the gallops.
‘Schooling gets their eye in to make it like second nature to them and to minimise mistakes,’ Skelton says.
Cheltenham prospect Beakstown was one of the horses Skelton schooled over hurdles on a misty, cold morning before riding another Festival hopeful Roksana on the circular all-weather gallop.
The alarm sounds at 5.30am and Skelton heads to work at his brother’s yard for 6.45am
Morning work consists of schooling them over obstacles and riding them out on the gallops
Despite being the star man in the yard, Skelton does not see it that way and gets his hands dirty by washing his horses down after their work.
Skelton is on the go all morning. If he is not sat on a horse, he is answering phone calls, responding to messages or checking the declarations for the upcoming races.
After arriving at the course, Skelton may walk the track to familiarise himself with the conditions. He can ride in up to eight races in an afternoon with at least half an hour between the start of each race.
Following his final race, he drives back home for dinner with fiancee Bridget Andrews, who also rides for Dan. There is little time for television other than watching replays of the day’s racing and he can hit the sack as late as midnight.
Despite being the star man, Skelton gets his hands dirty by washing his horses down after work
Celebrity Fitness: DIET
HARRY SKELTON’S TYPICAL FOOD
Breakfast: Fruit, natural yoghurt
Lunch: Snacks at the races or chicken
Dinner: Fish, meat, vegetables, sweet potato
Drinks: Tea, water, cranberry juice
‘Fighting that battle with the scales is something that mentally affects you more than anything,’ Skelton says. ‘Jockeys can go through a lot physically but it’s the mental side that really gets to them in the end.’
The hectic morning schedule means breakfast is not high on the agenda. Skelton grabs something on the go, like fruit or a yoghurt, but on Sunday mornings he does welcome bacon and eggs now and again. ‘I enjoy cooking and love food,’ he says.
He limits his consumption of carbohydrates and eats eggs or meat for protein. Throughout the day, Skelton just ‘picks away at things’, including sweets to keep energy levels high for racing, with a particular liking for wine gums.
Skelton eats at least 1,000 calories less than the daily guideline for men to control his weight
Despite eating at least 1,000 calories less than the daily guideline for men, Skelton says ‘I eat what I want’ and just accepts that ‘it is something jockeys get used to as it’s got to be done’.
Skelton, whose aspiration is to claim the Champion Jockey crown, reveals that he has never drunk a drop of alcohol in his life as he admired 20-time Champion Jockey Sir AP McCoy, who remained teetotal throughout his career. ‘I’m pretty sure I enjoy myself without it,’ Skelton adds.
The minimum weight Skelton can ride at is 10st. To shed the pounds he might miss a meal, put on a sweat suit and go for a run or hit the gym but would try not to sweat too much before a race day.
Skelton lives in Warwickshire countryside with fiancee Bridget Andrews, who rides for Dan
Celebrity Fitness: EXERCISE
‘There’s not much time for the gym when I’m riding a lot and I like to hope I’m still pretty fit,’ Skelton says.
If there hasn’t been racing for several days Skelton would do up to an hour-and-a-half in the gym to keep his fitness levels up. In September he would focus on core work and complete circuits following a lighter summer racing schedule.
Standing at 5ft 7in Skelton’s comfortable weight is 10st 3lbs which he admits for a jockey is a ‘nice weight’.
As a result, he does not have to try to burn pounds off with vigorous exercise regimes. ‘I don’t sweat half as much as what other jockeys do,’ he says. ‘Some can wake up 10st 10lbs, 10st 13lbs and really struggle and they’re sweating every day.’
If there hasn’t been racing for several days Skelton would do up to an hour-and-a-half in gym
Celebrity Fitness: TRAVEL
The closest racecourse Skelton can have rides at is Stratford, around 10 miles away from his home while the furthest track in Britain he can drive to is Perth in Scotland. The 740-mile all-round trip would take a whopping 12 hours and 40 minutes.
Dan’s assistant trainer Tom Messenger usually drives one way and Skelton would drive the other. Skelton enjoys listening to music on the radio on his travels but mainly keeps his mind focused on the upcoming runners.
‘You need a car that is reliable,’ Skelton says as he reveals he travels around 70,000 miles a year in his Audi A7.
Occasionally, Skelton can find himself with rides at two racecourses in the same day. He has to rush straight to the car after a race at one venue to make it to another course in time for his next ride.
‘You need a car that is reliable,’ he says as he reveals he travels around 70,000 miles a year
Celebrity Fitness: SPARE TIME
FIVE THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT HARRY SKELTON
Favourite film: The Longest Yard
Favourite music: Coldplay
Favourite TV programme: Keith Lemon’s Through the Keyhole or Celebrity Juice
Favourite football team: Aston Villa
Three guests he’d invite to a dinner party: Pep Guardiola, Rita Ora and Anthony Joshua
The National Hunt season runs all year round with each new campaign beginning in April. There are no days off, it is ‘flat out all the time’ and he admits unwinding is hard.
‘When racing is off and I’ve got a free day, me and Bridget do like to get away. We’ve got two whippets, we like to take them off for a walk, after riding out though,’ Skelton says. ‘We have a few breaks in the year when we can get away but when I am away, I can’t wait to get back.’
Skelton is immersed in the sport, he reads The Racing Post and watches the racing channels on television.
‘To actually switch off and not to say one per cent wouldn’t be thinking about racing, I would say it’s true, the whole time there’s always that what’s gone on,’ he adds.
‘Even if you weren’t racing, I’m looking at results, checking up, you’ve got to be switched on and know everyone’s horses, know the form and know what you’re competing against.’
Racing is Skelton’s life 24/7, so much so that he thinks about it when his head hits the pillow
Racing is Skelton’s life 24/7, so much so that he even thinks about it when his head hits the pillow: ‘I wish I was a better sleeper,’ Skelton concedes.
‘I can actually go to sleep thinking about something, wake up in the morning and it felt like I hadn’t even been asleep. The whole night all I was actually thinking about was a race, how it was going to pan out, and that’s the truth.
‘Sometimes it’s a bit disturbing. I wake up in the morning and it actually takes it out of me, I feel like I haven’t even been asleep.’
The National Hunt season runs all year round with each new campaign beginning in April
Celebrity Fitness: RACING
Despite his non-stop lifestyle, Skelton spared some time to give Sportsmail a lesson in how to ride a horse.
‘Bridge the reins, rest your knuckles on the wither of the horse, keep your heels down, stand up out of the saddle and slowly start to go with the motion,’ Skelton instructed after I hopped on board an Equicizer – a mechanical horse used to practise technique and improve fitness.
Keeping your heels back, your body still and back straight while pushing the horse was a lot harder than it looked. It was even more difficult as I got lower in the saddle as if pushing the horse out towards the finish line, and I had no obstacles to contend with.
Skelton spared some time to give Sportsmail a lesson in how to ride a horse at Lodge Hill
Sportsmail’s Kate McGreavy hopped on board an Equicizer to learn the technique of a jockey
The lactic acid was building up in the leg muscles and it was a physical test to remain balanced in the crouched position but the focus was to ‘look between the horse’s ears’.
Skelton rode his first winner at the age of 17 and became the youngest jockey to win the Irish Grand National just two years later.
After sitting on horses from an early age he now rides close to 700 horses a season.
‘The thing that stands out is winners – I don’t see it as a job. Winning is a feeling like no other,’ Skelton says.
Skelton became the youngest jockey to win the Irish Grand National at 19 back in 2009
To some riding half a tonne of racehorse at speed and jumping over fences that are as high as 4ft 6in might not only seem dangerous but also totally crazy.
‘From the general public looking in I can understand they think it’s nuts and it’s mad but there are a lot of things out there that are mad,’ Skelton, who has only broken his right collarbone in his career, acknowledges.
‘If you’re scared you probably shouldn’t do it. The speed element gets the heart going and you get a kick out of it. It’s like driving a formula one car – some are faster than others.
‘The fact is that winning is the drug and that’s what you do it fo