Gordon Elliott rejects competitive criticism of great rival Willie Mullins

‘We’re making him hungrier and he’s making us better,’ says trainer closing in on 40 Cheltenham festival winners

Considering they are arch-competitive rivals, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott appear to have a mutual appreciation society going on.

Earlier this month. Mullins explained his expansion into the greatest winning machine the sport has ever seen by pointing out how he is simply trying to keep competitive against his greatest adversary.

On Monday, Elliott reciprocated the sentiment, while vehemently rejecting those who fear competition levels have suffered in the wake of what can too often seem like a private battle between a pair of intensively driven figures.

“We definitely haven’t made him better, but we’re making him hungrier, and he’s making us better,” Elliott commented.


Describing Mullins as “the greatest trainer of all time”, he said: “I can’t have it, people whingeing, giving out about Willie Mullins or whoever ruining this or that. These people giving out, they’ve chips on both their shoulders. Willie sets the standard, and we have to chase it, make ourselves better.”

As an expression of solidarity, it went far beyond professional plámás. After all, who better to appreciate the scale of Mullins’s achievement than the man who for the past decade has been snapping at his heels?

What gets overlooked sometimes, given the inevitable focus on the older man, is just how astounding the scale of Elliott’s accomplishments are too.

When Cheltenham starts in a fortnight, it will be the 13th anniversary of his first festival success, Chicago Grey in the National Hunt Chase. There have been 36 more since, at least one a year, every year, apart from 2021. Failure to oust Mullins as champion trainer in Ireland didn’t stop him twice beating him to the festival’s top trainer gong, including in 2018 with eight winners.

Last year’s hat-trick enabled him to pass the overall tally of his mentor, Martin Pipe. Only Mullins, Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, and legendary English man Fulke Walwyn are ahead of him in the all-time table. Elliott needs three more winners to equal the man who trained Mill House.

However, it is Mullins, and his remorseless progress towards a once scarcely imaginable festival “century”, that will loom over the upcoming extravaganza. If Elliott might once have given the impression of being eaten up by that, he cuts a more equable figure these days.

Colossal achievement probably helps. And he turns 46 this Saturday. There’s also, perhaps, perspective from the infamous image, and hysterical reaction to it, that triggered a suspension from competing at Cheltenham in 2021.

Faced on Monday with parts of a media machine that once seemed intent on his professional destruction, Elliott gave little indication of the stresses and strains that come when tightening screws on what bookmakers reckon is the second most powerful string going into Cheltenham. Appearances can deceive, though.

“It is pressure. The lads will tell you; I probably start getting a bit antsy [around now]. I love Cheltenham, it’s the best week of the year. I can’t have anyone saying Cheltenham isn’t the be-all and end-all — it is,” he said.

Heading his team this time will be the Gold Cup contender Gerri Colombe. Owner Brian Acheson’s colours will also be carried by Teahupoo and Irish Point who dominate betting for the Stayers Hurdle. Stalwart performers Delta Work and Galvin head for the Cross-Country.

Most intriguingly of all, there is the unbeaten Brighterdayshead to consider for the Mares Novice Hurdle. Elliott doesn’t bother to disguise his regard for the Gigginstown mare.

“Shane McCann rides her every day. He’s as good a judge as we have here, and he says she could be as good as any we’ve ever had here,” he said.

He pays her the compliment of being unflashy, something also attributed to Gerri Colombe who has the mammoth task of trying to bridge a 23-length gap with Galopin Des Champs from Christmas if he is to emulate Don Cossack’s 2016 Blue Riband victory.

“I think Galopin Des Champs has been awesome this year, I don’t how we’re going to beat him. We are better than we were in Leopardstown the last day; for me he didn’t run his race,” he said. “We had him categorised as a mud lover [but] I think the better the ground, the better chance he has.”

Elliott’s big ally in all this is jockey Jack Kennedy who first showed up at his Co Meath yard when barely a teenager and is now chasing a first rider’s championship. Asked what his best festival chance is, the 24-year-old unhesitatingly opted for Brighterdayshead.

His boss didn’t hesitate either in acclaiming his stable jockey, who has several picks to make from the Elliott team, none more so than Teahupoo and Irish Point in the stayers’ or from a particularly strong bumper team.

The trainer stressed those choices are for Kennedy who he described as “the best jockey in my mind riding either side of the Irish Sea, different class”.

It is a festival that once again shapes as being rather one-sided in terms of any Irish Sea divide. It’s hard not to suspect Mullins’s wary eye is once more focused much closer to home in terms of major opposition.

“We’re probably a little under the radar this year. We haven’t got as many stand-up horses. But when you go down through them, we’ve got plenty of chances,” said Elliott.

As for critics dismissing the festival as some private battle between two figures, he added: “The lads who know how hard it is, they’re not jumping and down shouting, ‘the lads that are jumping up and down shouting have had it all and let it all slip through their hands’.”

It’s a sentiment from a corner of Meath that might be shared in another corner of Carlow.

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Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column