Gordon Elliott: Irish racing’s great ‘blow-in’ is set to raise Cheltenham storm
Meath-based trainer’s meteoric rise from humble beginnings continues
Trainer Gordon Elliott at his stables in Longwood, Co Meath: he is an odds-on favourite to dethrone Willie Mullins as Ireland’s champion trainer later this season. Photograph: PA Photo
It’s one of Cheltenham’s least valuable races but it’s the one Gordon Elliott says he most wants to win. And in the context of one of the most unlikely success stories racing has ever seen that isn’t so surprising.
The Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Hurdle is after all named after a trainer once regarded as British racing’s great interloper. During the course of a glittering career that often alarmed the sport’s UK establishment, Pipe briefly employed, and became a role model for, a young Irish jockey with big ambitions but lacking the means to pursue them.
So it takes no great leap to see why the protégé might still identify with the mentor. What stretches incredulity is the leap that has taken this former journeyman rider to the pinnacle of the training game, a leap underpinned by nothing except talent, drive and relentless ambition.
Irish racing may pride itself on not possessing the snobbishness which once made many in England look down their nose at Pipe, the son of a West Country bookie, with his innovative approach, unencumbered by centuries of convention, to the business of getting horses fit enough to win.
But this is a sport that requires land as a basic, and plenty of capital to build on it, both of which inevitably contribute to Irish racing’s dynastic nature: feel-good family stories may be consequently plentiful but can also make the idea of breaking in from the outside seem even more intimidating.
Most of Ireland’s modern training titans have grown up within racing, familiar with its mores and methods, often provided with an initial opportunity to exhibit their undoubted ability. Even Aidan O’Brien’s singular talent emerged only after marrying his wife, Annemarie, then Ireland’s champion National Hunt trainer, who transferred the licence to her husband.
Elliott, however, is a true racing blow-in. If Willie Mullins is bred to racing, it was emphatically not the case for his great rival growing up in Summerhill, Co Meath. Elliott’s father, Pat, worked as a mechanic, his mother, Jane, as a housewife. As childhoods go it was recognisable to anyone and in Meath a liking for watching the gee-gees on telly has rarely stood out.
At 13, however, Elliott’s life changed. An uncle had a point to point horse with local trainer Tony Martin. Elliott showed up at the yard hoping to help out one day and school quickly drifted in career betting to “no-hoper” status.
It might not be obvious from the burly, moon-faced figure now but Elliott was a decent amateur jockey, riding 46 winners on the track and almost 200 in point to points. But there were better riders around so he quit and in 2006 took the plunge into training.
Beginning with just a handful of horses, he had to rent boxes for them: within a year Elliott had won the Grand National.
Silver Birch was a cast-off from the top British trainer Paul Nicholls and a 33-1 outsider at Aintree: after he passed the post, the big question for most was “Gordon Who?”
The decade since has provided overwhelming answers. From mopping up bad races at gaff tracks throughout Britain and Ireland, to last year's winning of the Cheltenham Gold Cup with the Michael O’Leary-owned Don Cossack, Elliott’s career trajectory has been remorselessly upwards.
Now he is an odds-on favourite to dethrone Mullins as Ireland’s champion trainer later this season.
First however he travels to Cheltenham with his largest ever team of horses – almost 30 – with at least one in most of the races, including two in the Gold Cup. He is rapidly approaching 1,000 career winners in all and having just turned 39, his is a sporting success story as remarkable as it is unlikely.
Perhaps the only comparison in an Irish racing sense is Jim Bolger’s rise from similar obscurity to the top of the flat game. Bolger was an accountant before beginning the training career that eventually took him to Derby glory. However he cuts a much more ascetic and enigmatic figure than Elliott whose “everyman” aversion to wearing ties is no mere attempt to ape his most important client, Michael O’Leary.
Despite sitting at the top table of the sport of kings, his tastes appear reassuringly ordinary, part of a blunt “take me as I am” public face.
“What you see is really what you get. He doesn’t pull punches. He can be hot-headed, usually over the smallest thing and when he blows, it’s time to leave the area. But to be fair, that’s it then forgotten. He’s very straightforward, just a normal fellah,” says bloodstock agent Mouse O’Ryan. “It’s just he’s a genius with horses.”
That talent has propelled a meteoric rise which sees Elliott in charge of a state-of-the-art 170-strong stables near Longwood which he has built from scratch in the last six years.
Results have been spectacular including a memorable six winners on the one Navan card last November: the following day Elliott permitted a half-day for those working at the yard, put a grand behind the counter at a local pub, and helped his staff celebrate.
Such gestures aren’t rare and remarkably there appears to be little or no tip-toeing around the boss among a staff who are all under 40 – many of the stable’s integral members are trusted friends from school or from his riding days.
It is with the same small cadre of people that Elliott still socialises with around Trim and Summerhill rather than schmoozing with racing’s great and powerful. Elliott was previously engaged but is single and remains most comfortable on a night out amongst those he knows and trusts.
“Some trainers are very good at talking the talk, and can do it with anyone. He’s not that sort of person. He’s a man of few enough words,” considers a friend. “From the outside you could see why some people mightn’t be keen on him. He’s actually sound. But it’s his success that brings owners rather than anything else.”
It’s little surprise then the most important owner of all is O’Leary whose Gigginstown Stud supplies almost half of Elliott’s team next week. The Ryanair boss believes in rewarding his most successful trainers with even more opportunities so it was Elliott who received the majority of the 60 horses O’Leary controversially removed from Willie Mullins last September in a row over training fees.
The result has been an unexpected battle for the trainers championship that has been the central theme of this season and which could be caricatured as a rough-around-the-edges young pretender versus the smooth-talking old master. However O’Leary’s brother, Eddie, who manages the Gigginstown operation, sees significant similarities between the two men.
“Mentally, Gordon is very like Willie. They’re both natural trainers. They work off their eye. And they’re unflappable, which is important in this game.
“If Willie has a bad day you wouldn’t know it from him. Gordon can lose his cool with other things, but not when it comes to dealing with those bad days. Like it was the worst day ever when Don Cossack’s leg went and he had to be retired. But within an hour Gordon was over it,” says O’Leary who marvels at how unlikely Elliott’s rise to fame is.
“He’s a mechanic’s son, not a Lord’s son. He started off with a couple of yaks, renting boxes. It’s incredible, what he’s done. But he’s driven and he has a natural flair for training,” adds O’Leary before indicating just why Elliott is so determined to win the race named after his former mentor.
“A lot of people have gone through Pipe’s over the years. But Pipe saw something in this hard -partying, bad amateur jockey that no one else did,” he says. “They’re very close. Gordon is like a second son to Pipe. I would say there isn’t a day goes by that Gordon doesn’t talk to him. And himself and David (Pipe) are like brothers.”
In a ruthlessly professional business, such a private ambition is a nod to sentiment that might be regarded as surprising from someone whose public persona can come across as abrupt. Success, however, remains the most valuable racing currency and Elliott provides that, whatever the circumstances.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Bellewstown or Cheltenham. Both will get the same thought and effort. And there’s no big secret, no magic: he keeps things simple, the horses are super fit, always look great and are happy and healthy,” Mouse O’Ryan says . “And he wants to win, whether it’s with an ass or a Gold Cup horse. He’s not afraid of much – but he is afraid of failure.”
Elliott’s success is certainly a riposte to those who dismiss racing’s top echelons as a resolutely closed shop. But it could also be argued he’s an exception that proves the rule. His accomplishments are exceptional enough to leave some pondering what he might ultimately achieve.
It might be perverse on the eve of Cheltenham to ponder flat racing but Elliott’s decision to train up to 10 two-year-olds for the upcoming summer game could be a sign of things to come, perhaps akin to Aidan O’Brien’s concentrating on the more lucrative and glamorous side of racing two decades ago.
“He’s excited about it. That’s how ambitious he is. You can see him asking questions off the flat lads all the time,” says O’Ryan. “I’ve been on at him for the past few years to do this. But he’ll only do it if he can competitive. That’s what he’s like. If it works out, though, there might be 25 yearlings going there next year.”
The thought of Irish racing’s blow-in finding more fields to conquer is surely one to make the hierarchy feel queasy.
GORDON ELLIOTT FACT FILE
Born: March 2, 1978.
Lives: Cullentra House, Longwood, Co. Meath.
First Winner: Arresting, Perth, June 11, 2006.
First Irish Winner: Toran Road, Kilbeggan, May 5th, 2007.
Grand National Winner: Silver Birch – 2007.
Cheltenham Gold Cup Winner: Don Cossack – 2016.
Other Cheltenham Festival Winners: Chicago Grey (2011 National Hunt Chase) Carlito Briganate (2011 Coral Cup) Flaxen Flare (2013 Fred Winter Hurdle)Tiger Roll (2014 Triumph Hurdle) Cause Of Causes (2015 National Hunt Chase) Diamond King (2016 Coral Cup) Cause Of Causes (Kim Muir Chase).
Notable Flat Wins: Dirar (2008 Ebor) Commissioned (2016 Queen Alexandra Stakes).