Friday night at Olympia is race night and the Markel Jockeys Jumping in aid of the Injured Jockeys Fund always delivers with superb entertainment, some friendly (*fierce*) rivalry and donations a-plenty for this fantastic charity.
Lining up for the boys were 20-time champion jump jockey AP McCoy, Harry Skelton, Jim Crowley, Tom Scudamore and Nico de Boinville, with team manager Nick Skelton at the helm.
They were taken on in a relay challenge over the coloured poles — with a joker fence to finish — by the girls’ team of Grade One winners Lizzie Kelly and Bryony Frost, Cheltenham victor Bridget Andrews, and weighing room colleagues on the Flat, Josephine Gordon and Nicola Currie, with Pippa Funnell coaching from the ground.
The girls were much the favoured side among the packed crowd, receiving rapturous cheers as first rider Lizzie Kelly set the bar sky high with a flying clear in 38.25sec before clearing the joker to knock four seconds off her time.
Next up was Nico de Boinville, a last-minute replacement for Ryan Moore. Nico had hotfooted straight in to London from winning at Ascot earlier in the day.
“I hope he hasn’t been doing any moonlight schooling on my horses when I haven’t been looking!” said trainer Nicky Henderson of his stable jockey.
Nico rode a surprisingly cautious round in 40.19sec — 36.19sec after the joker fence was cleared — showing superb horsemanship but not quite at the speed his team-mates were expecting.
“We’re all getting very competitive out the back — Lizzie was brilliant but she did miss one of the inside turns so I told the girls: ‘Concentrate — you have to get that inside turn to number six’,” said Pippa Funnell as in came Josephine Gordon as second rider for the girls and immediately upped the pace, heeding Pippa’s instructions by taking every short cut.
Tom Scudamore looked determined in his red silks for the boys but hit two fences, plus the joker, before Nicola Currie, whose equine partner was beautifully adorned with tinsel, kept the girls out in front with a clean and quick round.
The fastest round of the day came from Jim Crowley who, urged on by the crowd, went faster and faster, punching the air in delight as he cleared the joker and put the boys back in the game.
“I don’t think I was very good – I was well horsed!” he said. “He looked after me round there. It’s totally alien to me but it was great fun.”
Bryony Frost attacked the course with great panache but two fences, including the joker, hit the ground.
“Hopeless Harry” was the commentator’s tongue-in-cheek verdict of Harry Skelton’s poles-all-over-the-place-round. He finished with a big grin nevertheless: “It was still a better result than last year because my bridle stayed on,” he laughed, referring to the tack malfunctions he suffered in the competition last year, which were fixed with cable tie provided by his father Nick.
The competition was clinched for the girls by another nifty round from team captain Bridget Andrews, wife of Harry Skelton.
“There should be a stewards’ enquiry — she went before the bell!” said father-in-law Nick Skelton at the gate, in a vain attempt to wipe out the opposition for his boys’ team.
Resigned to another humiliating defeat at the hands of the girls, AP McCoy announced before he set off for the final round of the evening: “I’m not very happy with my team, but it’s a bit too late to change them isn’t it?”
Clare Balding then challenged AP to jump a raised joker fence in return for a whopping eight seconds off his time — and she immediately raised the cups a couple of holes, leaving a rather unconvinced AP to kick on over the first fence on his heel-kicking grey.
No sooner had he turned away to jump the second fence, in ran Nick Skelton and William Funnell to put the joker fence up even higher.
Meanwhile, it was all unravelling for AP. He missed the third fence and the horse decided enough was enough when faced with what was now a towering final vertical thanks to some cheeky meddling by Skelton and Funnell and the greatest jockey of all time was deposited unceremoniously on the Olympia ground.
His second attempt was equally unsuccessful and, after offering the horse to Nick Skelton to have a go — “He’s broken his neck, don’t make him do it!” shouted Clare Balding — AP finally cleared what was now a cross-pole sized joker on foot, with his horse in tow…
“Harry Skelton said I had to let the girls win,” disputed AP afterwards. “He’s nothing like his Dad, let’s be honest!”
It’s fair to say, the girls well and truly trounced the boys in this contest — by an accumulative time of some 20 seconds in fact. But what a brilliant evening’s entertainment it was.
“It’s very kind of Olympia to let us come here and showcase the Injured Jockeys Fund and the great work they do and thanks to Markel for supporting us this evening,” said AP.