Unique sporting doubles are few and far between, but owner Ged Mason hopes to initiate one with Protektorat in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup, a victory he describes would be worth "celebrating in style" together with co-owners Sir Alex Ferguson and John Hales.
Success at the Cheltenham Festival has eluded Mason since Sporazene claimed the Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle in 2004. However, he believes another taste of glory at the meeting he looks forward to above all else could be round the corner.
While Protektorat will bid to better his Gold Cup third from 12 months ago, Mason, and his co-owners, also hold leading claims with leading Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle contender Hermes Allen on Festival Wednesday (15th March) as well as Ryanair Chase hopeful Hitman and Il Ridoto in the Magners Plate Handicap Chase on St Patrick’s Thursday.
Although former Manchester United boss Ferguson, and multiple Festival-winning owner Hales, whose daughter Lisa is also involved with Protektorat, have won countless trophies Mason feels a Gold Cup win would be the pinnacle of their achievements in horseracing.
And for Mason things could get even better away from the racetrack with his beloved Sale Sharks, who he has been joint-owner of alongside Simon Orange since 2016, sitting second behind table toppers Saracens in rugby union’s Gallagher Premiership.
But before dreaming of a possible outing at Twickenham with the Sharks the father of two’s focus is firmly on The Festival, and the chances of the Dan Skelton-trained eight year-old, who he admits he has got the ‘prayer mat’ out for ahead of his Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup bid.
Mason said: “A Cheltenham Gold Cup first is on every owner’s bucket list. It is the Holy Grail and it would be worth celebrating in style. It would be fantastic if Protektorat could do it for us.
“I’ve had a fourth in the race with together with Sir Alex with What A Friend, who was our first horse together, and we have had a third with Protektorat last year, and we are on the prayer mat to go two places better.
“It would be nice for John as it is the one really big trophy he has not won, but also for Sir Alex, as it is races like this that spur them on.
“Both Sir Alex and John would probably need extensions on their houses for the trophy cabinet if he won as they have won that many trophies between them!
“Protektorat is eight now and is that year older, stronger and wiser and Harry (Skelton) knows how to ride him better and what suits him better and Dan knows how to train him better.
“With all those ingredients in the mix hopefully it makes him an all-round better horse, fingers crossed.”
Almost 20 years might now have passed since Sporazene thundered up the famous Cheltenham hill under Ruby Walsh but the Salford-born businessman has vivid recollections of that victory following an entertaining aftermath.
He said: “I was very fortunate that in my first couple of years of ownership I ended up winning the County Hurdle. It was a fantastic day. I was invited up to the Royal Box by the managing director of the Tote and he said ‘Ged, enjoy this as money can’t buy this and it doesn’t happen very often, especially to someone owning their first horse.’
“I didn’t really take it in as I didn’t know how frequent winners and losers would come. It was just a fantastic experience. I think I flew down the staircase at the time without touching the staircase it seemed and I kissed the horse, which was caught on television.
“I celebrated with Paul (Nicholls) afterwards and we were one of the last to leave the track. I ended up in Cheltenham having waved my family off to go home to Manchester and I stayed in town with my best pal.
“We were supposed to be on a ski trip with a legal company we had invited. We ended up at the airport the next day and for my sins we ended up in Austria.
“My wife phoned me up and said what are you doing there, but she said it might never happen again and so far it hasn’t. I might take my passport on Gold Cup day and I’ve told the boys to do that as well.”
Not only has Mason and his fellow owners got a lively chance of hitting the jackpot in the Gold Cup, but they also have a strong chance of getting on the scoresheet earlier at the meeting with Hermes Allen in the Grade One Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Wednesday 15th March).
Mason said: “It was interesting with Hermes Allen as Paul thought early doors that he wasn’t showing anything and we thought what have we got, then he bolted up at Stratford before winning the Grade Two at Cheltenham then the Grade one at Newbury.
“I’m always a bit more nervous when they are favourite. The horse doesn’t know what odds he is but it is delightful to have a horse that everyone thinks is capable and valued by so many.
“He did well in the Challow (Novices’ Hurdle, at Newbury) and the form looks good. It was testing conditions there but he eased through it. This will be slightly different ground but he has won on it before so it will be interesting to see how he goes.
“Nothing is ever bombproof, as we know, but he feels in a good position.”
While both Hitman, in the Ryanair Chase, and Il Ridoto, in the Plate Handicap Chase are not quite as prominent in the betting neither are forlorn chances according to Mason.
He said: “I can’t say Hitman is frustrating as he has still been placed in a lot of the Grade One races he has run in, but to go that extra you have to have that extra and he just doesn’t quite finish his races, aside from at Haydock when he led from the front.
“He travels so well into the race and he gets into a position where you think it will be game over, but if he gets into a position where he can finish the race then he will be a threat.
“There are high quality horses like Shishkin in there and it will be a tough race but as we know anything can happen on those big days. Hitman is special to us. Paul believes in him and I believe in him and it would be special if he could do something in the Ryanair.
“Il Ridoto is only a six year old still learning his trade. It was nice to see what he could do at Cheltenham on that track. The hill can catch horses out but to see him win, and win in the manner he did, was very encouraging going for the Plate.”
Excitement might be building for Mason ahead of the Festival, however he is equally looking forward to the run in of the Gallagher Premiership with the Sharks, under director of rugby, Alex Sanderson, holding every chance of securing a first domestic title since 2006.
Mason said: “It is great to see us in this position as every team goes into the season wanting to be in the Play-Offs.
“We are in second place and that gives us a home draw, which is an advantage, one would hope in the play-offs, to see if we can get to Twickenham and play whoever in the final.
“Steve Diamond (former director of rugby) set the foundations but Alex has taken it to another level.
“There has always been that hope and optimism that the squad and team could start to compete at this level now, and why not with the quality of players we have got.
“Alex’s coaching methods, and how he motivates the guys, I’ve seen first-hand and he is an excellent manager at getting the best out of the team in what is his first job in the hot-seat.
“We have invested in the squad with the likes of George Ford, Jonny Hill and the Curry brothers (Tom and Ben). We have a great squad that we have assembled, a bit like my horses, so let's see if we can get some silverware in the rugby world as well this year.”
Back to the racing and while Mason has enjoyed seeing his own silks carried to glory, he insists that any success at this year’s Festival will mean that much more given he will be able to share the moment with those he has forged close relationships with over time.
He said: “I’ve owned horses on my own but there is no fun in that. It is like your birthday, it is only you celebrating on that day, whereas if you are in partnerships it is great as we are all having a joyous day.
“To have four runners going to the Festival is a bit unusual, but it is exciting to have some entries and ones that have got a chance.
“I’ve been chasing the ace at the Festival since Sporazene, but with the armoury I’ve got now with my co-owners hopefully we can put that right and try and win something.”