Gordon Elliott hoping to keep Grade One momentum up at Leopardstown
County Meath trainer: 'If you don’t want to be champion you shouldn’t be doing it'
Samcro at the Leopardstown Christmas festival launch in Gordon Elliott’s yard in Longwood, Co Meath, on Monday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
If you’re only as good as your last winner then Gordon Elliott was entitled to feel very good indeed on Monday morning.
The Gold Cup and dual-Aintree National-winning trainer had saddled a 61-1 four-timer at the previous day’s Grade One ‘Winter Festival’ card in Fairyhouse.
They included a pair of Grade One victories for Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team topped by a hat-trick of Hatton’s Grace Hurdle successes for Apple’s Jade.
It made Elliott’s 78-acre Cullentra House stables near Longwood in Co Meath an opportune spot for the launch of racing’s next big festival at Leopardstown over Christmas.
With the sun shining and normal big-race service resumed, even Mengli Khan’s brief but exuberant attempt to wipe out an assembled press throng in the warm-up ring earned him only a comparatively indulgent “Jesus Christ” from his plain-speaking trainer.
However, even three weeks away from Christmas it didn’t need much prompting for Elliott to hark back months to the early summer and a different sort of three-week gap between winners.
No gap at all for most everyone else, it represented a chasm for someone whose rise to fame since taking out a licence a dozen years ago has been as meteoric as any the old game has ever seen.
Simply put, the horses in his 200-strong capacity yard were under the weather and Elliott chose to shut down shop, not make any entries, and give his team a chance to reboot as the National Hunt game took a back seat to the flat.
However, not for the first-time racing’s rumour-train hit top gear, eventually forcing Elliott to issue a statement slamming “malicious speculation” about his yard being affected by strangles. He also had to clear the record about supposedly being closed down by the authorities because of that virus.
It represented a first significant dip in the remorselessly upward curve of a career that has taken a former amateur jockey with no racing background to the peak of the training game.
And the memory of how many people seemed to jump at the chance to believe the worst hasn’t been forgotten by the maestro of Cullentra.
“We were never going to train another winner. We were going to shut down if you believed what was said,” Elliott recalled on Monday. Tossed an opportunity to blame the media he admitted: “There was a lot of pressure from press people yeah – a lot of people talking shite!”
Blunt he may be sometimes, but Elliott is also far too canny an operator to realise that some media conjecture was in the ha’penny place compared to the sort of speculation within racing itself.
However, the reminder how the 40-year-old’s rise from obscurity has made him one of the sport’s most public faces – and with all that involves – has clearly been received and understood.
Winning the Grand National with Silver Birch back in 2007 might have provoked an element of Gordon Who? But subsequent torrents of success, including a Gold Cup through Don Cossack, and another Aintree National last April with Tiger Roll, has meant a crash-course in playing the media game.
Perhaps the most intense example of it has been in the last couple of years when twice agonisingly coming up short against his great rival Willie Mullins for the trainers’ title.
“People don’t realise that everywhere you go there’s a camera in your face and questions asked. You have to be so careful what you say,” Elliott said.
Nevertheless, and almost in the same breath, he continues to make no bones about how becoming champion trainer remains his greatest ambition.
“If you don’t want to be champion you shouldn’t be doing it. We’ll struggle this time because the horses weren’t right for the first six weeks of the season. But my ambition in life is to be champion trainer,” he added.
Sunday’s four-timer made a significant dent in Mullins’s lead in this season’s championship and there is over €1.4 million available in prizemoney during the upcoming four days of Leopardstown alone.
Elliott won three of the seven Grade One prizes at last year’s Christmas festival, including Apple’s Jade in the Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle.
Apple’s Jade is likely to go for the same three-mile heat again despite pulling a shoe in Sunday’s race which meant she skipped Monday’s routine canters.
Elliott is looking at the Savills Chase with another of O’Leary’s Cheltenham festival winning mares, Shattered Love, and nominated her as having Cheltenham Gold Cup-level potential.
Mengli Khan’s inclination to do more than canter reflected how well he has emerged from his impressive debut over fences last week. He is one three entries for the Elliott-Gigginstown combination for the St Stephen’s Day Grade One feature, the Racing Post Novice Chase.
In contrast, Samcro’s reputation has slipped this season after two defeats, the second of which was Saturday’s loss to Buveur D’Air in the Newcastle’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
He is likely to try to regain winning form in Leopardstown’s final-day feature, the Ryanair Hurdle, sponsored by his owner. Whether or not Champion Hurdle ambitions are intact after that remains to be seen.
So pressed about whether Samcro might yet go some other route, Elliott produced a deft example of keeping his media options open: “There’s every chance he’ll go for any race!”
No one knows better how it’s always the next race that counts most.