Passing of member of New Zealand’s famous racing family

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Our Flight after her victory in the 1982 Gr.1 New Zealand Derby (2400m).
Our Flight after her victory in the 1982 Gr.1 New Zealand Derby (2400m). © NZTM/Race Images

One of the famous five racing Skelton brothers in New Zealand has died, with the sudden passing of Errol Bryan Skelton at his home in Levin on July 12.

The five Skelton brothers – Bill, Frank, Bob, Errol and Max – are synonymous with New Zealand racing, West Coasters hailing from Cobden in Greymouth and all enjoying success as jockeys, though Errol’s main highlights came as a trainer.

The brothers rode a total of 4581 winners in New Zealand with Bill setting the benchmark and becoming the first New Zealand jockey to notch 2000 wins, while Bob included a Gr.1 Melbourne Cup (3200m) on Van Der Hum among his host of victories and Max also enjoyed success overseas.

Errol Skelton
Errol Skelton. © NZTM/Race Images

Both Bill and Bob Skelton passed away in 2016, several years after brother Frank, and now with the death of Errol, just a month short of his 82nd birthday, Max Skelton is the sole survivor of the famous five and feeling the latest loss.

“We were all good mates – competitive on racedays, but we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company,” said Max Skelton, who lives in Christchurch.

“Errol’s death has left a big hole. We were pretty close. He was quite a character, often funny without trying to be, and he loved helping people. He was all set to come for the Grand National meeting next month.”

While overshadowed by his brothers as a jockey, Skelton still managed to ride 37 winners from 1955 before increasing weight and injuries from a fall saw him switch to training in 1964. His most memorable win as a jockey was the 1963 Otago Steeplechase on Tarmine.

Skelton retired from training in 2006 with 296 wins in New Zealand, the latest being Royal Shaka at Wanganui in September 2004. He never had a big team in work and in the twilight years of training he pottered around with just a few horses.

But the statistics don’t tell the whole story. Within his 40 years of training he saddled up some of the best horses in the country and his success spilled over to Australia.

“He was so casual with his horses and they responded so well to him,” Max Skelton said. “Some thought he was too casual, but he got results.

“One of the biggest thrills Errol got was winning the Greymouth Cup. Brother Bill was there and his son, David, rode him, and Frank, my other brother, had a share in him.”

To go back to his hometown and win that 1994 Greymouth Cup was indeed special for Skelton and Grey Raider went on three starts later to also win the Kumara Gold Nuggets (2000m) for the same combination.

Skelton initially rose to prominence in the early 1970s with the versatile Frederik, who won 11 races, including the 1971 Listed Parliamentary Handicap (2200m), the Grand National Hurdles (4200m) twice, the Wellington Steeplechase (5400m), the Hawke’s Bay Hurdles (3100m) and the  McGregor Grant Steeplechase (4900m).

Rose Mellay then emerged to win the 1974 Gr.1 Auckland Cup (3200m) with Bob Skelton aboard after being runner-up the previous season in both the (then Gr.2) New Zealand Derby (2400m) and Gr.1 New Zealand Oaks (2400m) when they were run at Riccarton for the last time.

Skelton later produced his top filly Our Flight, who won the 1982 Gr.1 New Zealand Derby (2400m) at Ellerslie after just failing to land the Gr.1 New Zealand 2000 Guineas (1600m) – New Zealand 1000 Guineas (1600m) double at Riccarton when going down by a mere nose to Clansman in the first leg.

Our Flight’s eight wins that season also included Skelton’s hometown feature, the Gr.1 Bayer Classic (1600m), and she was third in the Gr.1 New Zealand Oaks (2400m), winding up the 1982-83 New Zealand Filly of the Year.

Sly Wink was the top filly on the 1976-77 New Zealand 2YO Free Handicap for Skelton. She won 13 races, was Group One runner-up in the 1978 Telegraph Handicap (1200m) and 1977 Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes (1400m) and third in the Gr.1 Railway Handicap (1200m).

Rose And Thistle was a hardy performer, winning 10 of his 106 starts, including the Gr.3 Queen Elizabeth Handicap (2400m) at Ellerslie and was runner-up in the 1981 Gr.1 New Zealand Derby (2400m) and the Gr.1 New Zealand St Leger (2800m).

Skelton regularly took Rose And Thistle to Australia, where his many fine efforts included a second in the Gr.3 VATC Herbert Power Handicap (2400m) and thirds in both the 1984 Gr.1 Brisbane Cup (3200m) and Gr.2 P.J. O’Shea Stakes (2232m) and probably the most memorable of all, a fourth in the 1984 Melbourne Cup when ridden by Bob Skelton after being among the tailenders in the 1982 edition with the same rider.

In 1990 Skelton won the O’Shea Stakes – Brisbane Cup double with Shuzohra, a dual Group Three winner in New Zealand who went on to finish third in the Gr.1 Caulfield Cup (2400m), the Gr.2 Turnbull Stakes and the Sandown Cup (2400m) and was unplaced in the 1990 Melbourne Cup.

Shuzohra ended her career with a  second in the 1991 Gr.1 STC BMW Stakes (2400m) after being runner-up to Castletown in both the Gr.1 Wellington Cup (3200m) and Gr.3 Trentham Stakes (2400m).

Other top performers for Skelton included Asheen (Gr.2 Cuddle Stakes, 1600m, second Gr.1 Easter Handicap, 1600m), Kosha (10 wins;  Gr.2 ARC Flag Inns Trophy, 1600m, second Gr.1 Telegraph Handicap, 1200m) and Fairfield Lad (11 wins; Gr.3 CJC Winter Cup, 1600m).

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