Cheltenham Festival News
If Gordon Elliott was not considered among the training elite this time last year, he certainly is now.
It will be 10 years in April since the 39-year-old burst on to the training scene when claiming Grand National glory with Silver Birch, by which time he had not even trained a winner in his homeland.
Wind the clock forward a decade and Elliott has saddled eight Cheltenham Festival winners – headlined by the brilliant Don Cossack in last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup – and in less than two months’ time could be crowned Irish champion National Hunt trainer for the first time.
Elliott was the chief beneficiary when Gigginstown House Stud made the shock decision to remove the 60 horses they had in training with Willie Mullins last September, with big guns Outlander, Apple’s Jade and Don Poli among those to make the move.
The split between champion trainer and owner has had a huge impact on the Irish National Hunt landscape.
Elliott has continually insisted he has “absolutely no chance” of holding off his major rival until the end of the season, but Ashley Iveson discovered a slight thawing in his attitude during his latest visit to his impressive yard in County Meath.
For now, though, the trainers’ title will have to wait, as despite Don Cossack’s retirement, Elliott sends his strongest team yet – numerically at least – for the showpiece meeting at Prestbury Park.
On his Cheltenham Festival team and expectations for the meeting, Elliott said: “I’d say we’ll have 30 going over and most that are going will have chances of getting in the winner’s enclosure. I’ll have a runner in most races, apart from the Champion Bumper.
“We’ve no Don Cossack this year, but we’ve got plenty of chances and we’re really looking forward to it.
“On numbers I’d say we have a lot more fancied ones this year, but we had three winners last year and it will be hard to beat that.
“This is Cheltenham, it’s the Olympics, so nobody will be missing it because of the ground. There’s no excuses on that score, not unless it’s rattling quick or bottomless and I don’t think that’s going to happen.
“You need luck every day you get out of bed don’t you, so yes, you need a bit of luck.”
On the season so far, Elliott remarked: “We’re in a very lucky position at the moment, with the horses we have, the owners and the staff – it’s second to none.
“I think we’ve got 170 stables here now and we’ve got seven walkers and a swimming pool.
“We’re just having some work done on another gallop and once that’s finished we’ll have four different gallops. We’re improving the whole time and thankfully it’s working out and we’re getting the results.
“I keep saying we’re nearly done, but I’m like a child – every time I see a new toy I want it!
“We’re just trying to improve the place and improve ourselves.”
On his approach to training, the handler said: “You can’t forget where you started. I started off training winners round Scotland and if you forget about the small men, you never know what’s going to happen to the big ones.
“I probably don’t have as many summer horses as I’d like, just the way things have worked. I still try and support those tracks as much as I can, but it’s getting harder and harder.
“You have to take a little pull for the staff as well, as it’s 24-7.
On his battle to be crowned champion trainer in Ireland, Elliott admitted: “It’s something, of course, you dream about, to be champion trainer.
“Of course you think about it, I’d be telling you a lie if I said I didn’t, but I keep my feet firmly on the ground.
“I’ve got the utmost respect for Willie and the firepower he has. He’s going to be very hard to beat, but we’ll see what happens.
“It’s something I’m not going to start talking about until the last day of Punchestown.
“I’d say anything that can walk will go (to Punchestown). We have to give it a rattle if we’ve got a chance.
“But as I keep saying, I’ve the utmost respect for Willie. I thought it would take me 10 years for it to happen.
“If it happens it happens and if it doesn’t, hopefully it will happen sometime.”
On the potential to further increase the Cheltenham Festival to five days, Elliott said: “Aside from Willie there won’t be many trainers with as many runners at Cheltenham as we’ll have, Nicky Henderson maybe.
Cheltenham is Cheltenham. You probably want to keep the quality up, but I love racing.
“I suppose they need to be careful they don’t just turn it into a circus, but from my point of view, this is what we’re in the job for.”
On the retirement of Don Cossack and death of No More Heroes at last year’s Festival, Elliott said: “If Don Cossack had got injured the week before Cheltenham last year I’d have been gutted, but he’s won a Gold Cup and retired a champion.
“When they’re coming back from an injury like that you’re always thinking every day is your last day, so I don’t get too upset about it and worry about what’s happened.
“If he wasn’t 120 per cent we weren’t going to take a chance. He’s too good and he owes us nothing.
“Some lads might have given him another go, but he’s going to have a happy retirement now in Gigginstown and we’ll have to try and find another one like him.
“What happened to No More Heroes was rough because we thought he was the real thing, but that’s racing.
“Last year we had no winner on the first day, he got injured on the second day and half an hour later we came out and won the Coral Cup.
“If you worry about it too much you’d start getting depressed and you won’t train winners.
“You have to just keep your head up and keep ploughing on.”
On working with Michael and Eddie O’Leary of Gigginstown House Stud, Elliott said: “I started training for the O’Learys seven or eight years ago and I’ve never had any problems with them.
“They’re straight with me and I’m straight with them. Of course we have our disagreements, they have an opinion and I have an opinion.
“But if you work hard and do your best, you’ll always be OK.They’re supporting us with a lot of good horses.”
On his former mentor Martin Pipe and the influence he has had on his career, Elliott said: “He hasn’t been over here since last year, but I still spend a bit of time with him and go over there a good bit.
“He’s a man I respect and admire – he’s my hero.
“I suppose the attention to detail he had was incredible, he never left any stone unturned. He brought it to a different level.
“Things have changed since he was training. A lot more people have the facilities, but he definitely brought it to another level.
“I think he’s an amazing man. I worked for Tony Martin as well and between the two of them I would have learnt all I know.”