Gordon Elliott readying his big guns ahead of Christmas action

Leading trainer launches Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival on Monday

Like every racehorse trainer, all Gordon Elliott really wants for Christmas is Santa to swoop Constitution Hill up from Nicky Henderson’s stable and drop him into his Co Meath yard – ribbon optional.

“Very impressed,” was Elliott’s relatively understated verdict on the English star’s spectacular weekend victory that propelled him to odds-on favouritism for the Champion Hurdle in March.

Among the 200 horses at Elliott’s Cullentra stables is his own Champion hope, Pied Piper. But although appreciation of Constitution Hill is more sober than the near hysterical cross-channel canonisation of jump racing’s newest superstar, there’s no one not envious of Henderson.

Despite that, there’s recognition too that a top-notcher there is no bad thing here either given the worryingly lop-sided nature of the game’s vital Anglo-Irish rivalry.


Elliott isn’t too sympathetic to British racing’s angst about the skewed balance of competitive power but tips his hat to Henderson for running another of his stars, Epatante, against the brand-new paragon last Saturday.

“To be honest they bring a lot of it upon themselves,” he said on Monday.

“We’ve the best racing because we have to take each other on every day. There’s no hiding place in Ireland. You could go to a maiden hurdle in Clonmel on Thursday and find yourself taking on a Grade One horse. In England, I think they dilute it too much.

“It’s good to see Nicky’s two horses taking each other on the other day because that doesn’t happen in England too often. They can duck and dive each other the whole time.

“We know who the best horse is going to the big races because there’s no hiding place. You have to take each other on; if there are two different owners in the yard you have to take each other on,” he added.

He was speaking to media as Leopardstown launched its Christmas Festival at Elliott’s base near Longwood on Monday.

It being still November there was some restraint on the full festive garb – not a Santa hat in sight – but there was unbounded relish at the prospect of a first fully-attended festival since 2019.

Forced behind closed doors in 2020 and 2021, the traditional post-Christmas ritual of heading to Foxrock for four days is back on track with up to 60,000 people expected.

Elliott couldn’t attend in 2020 due to getting Covid but was there last Christmas for a particularly emotional Grade One success with Galvin in the Savills Chase.

That was the biggest win he’d recorded since returning from a six-month suspension following the notorious images of him sitting on a dead horse emerged earlier that year.

It was a wonderful conclusion to an ‘annus horribilis’ that had Elliott at the centre of a much more malign hysteria which at one point looked like it might derail his career.

Evidence of his reputational rehabilitation is stamped all over his current position at the top of the trainers’ championship, and maybe even the presence of media, sponsors, and assorted hangers-on as Leopardstown pinned a face to their biggest dates of the year.

Considering some of the more extreme flak he endured at the height of the controversy, Elliott was in notably relaxed form on Monday, something possibly helped by a healthy 37 winners this month alone.

As stable stars such as Delta Work, Mighty Potter and Zanahiyr cantered for the cameras, Elliott revealed his “biggest headache” now is staffing shortages.

Between full-time and part-time, as well as those able to ride out only at weekends, almost 100 people are involved in keeping the show on the road.

“There’s a massive shortage of staff in our industry. We’re always looking,” he said before outlining at least one step he has taken to counter wider availability problems.

“We’re in danger of working our good staff too hard. For instance, I give all my staff a half-day on a Monday. We rotate who comes back and feeds on a Monday evening. It’s a sign of the times, trying to keep everyone happy.

“They [staff] just don’t seem to be there. It’s too easy now for young people to work Monday to Friday and have your weekends to yourself. It’s 24-7 in this game,” Elliott added.

The issue is pressing enough that one of the most high-profile figures in this earthiest of industries has had to resort to that most corporate of roles – HR – to try and fill the gaps.

Jargon about career ladders and hierarchical needs probably wasn’t abundant earlier on Monday morning when a squad of horses travelled to Navan racecourse for a schooling session.

Jack Kennedy, who is gradually assuming more and more of the role of Elliott’s number one rider, was back at the track where the previous day he had partnered two stable winners, including the impressive novice chaser Fil Dor.

That four-year-old grey will appear next at Leopardstown on St Stephen’s Day in the Grade One Racing Post Novice Chase. Fil For could be accompanied in that by another rising young star, Hollow Games.

Last year’s winner Galvin will be joined in the Savills by Fury Road and Conflated while the mare Queens Brook is another in the Christmas mix, provided she doesn’t indulge in the festivities too much.

“She has to get a swim every evening or she gets too heavy,” Elliott said. “All she needs is to look at food!”

And if that isn’t the spirit of Christmas, then it’s hard to know what is.