Gordon Elliott planning to send biggest ever team to Cheltenham Festival

Meath man favourite to be leading trainer for third year in a row

Gordon Elliott gives instructions to jockeys during the stable visit to his yard at Cullentra House. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Gordon Elliott gives instructions to jockeys during the stable visit to his yard at Cullentra House. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

As the superstar mare Apple’s Jade cantered ahead of a long line of 42 stable companions on Tuesday morning her trainer Gordon Elliott was asked if all were going to Cheltenham.

“Yeah,” he said.

“That’s the whole lot then?”

“Well, there’s more,” Elliott conceded. “But that’s all the riders we have!”

Later he tried to calculate how many of his colossal string might be at National Hunt racing’s greatest festival when it starts in three weeks’ time.

“I’d say we’ll make 85 to 90 entries. So around 50 runners, I’d say: 45, 50, 60,” Elliott guesstimated to a media throng.

The nervousness of this time of year is how many ‘possibles’ stay sound and healthy enough to become ‘probables’ in a couple of weeks.

Apple’s Jade and Keith Donoghue on the gallops at Gordon Elliott’s yard. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Apple’s Jade and Keith Donoghue on the gallops at Gordon Elliott’s yard. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Nevertheless Elliott is still confident about sending his biggest ever team to the four days that define so much of the sport.

It’s a definition that explains why four years after Elliott’s breakthrough Aintree National success with Silver Birch in 2007 it proved a relief to break his festival duck in 2011. It was best to nip talk of hoodoos in the bud.

Chicago Grey’s National Hunt Chase victory was the first on a Cheltenham roll-of-honour that has rapidly stretched to 22 winners, including a record-equalling eight last year.

It’s a strike rate that explains why Elliott is favourite to be the festival’s leading trainer for a third year in a row and why, numerically, Tuesday’s media invasion almost equalled the number of potential runners.

Apple’s Jade position at the head of the string reflects her star status.

A 10-time Grade winner for Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, long-term plans for her to try and regain the Mares’ Hurdle were abandoned when she ran out a spectacular winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle earlier this month.

That led to a widespread clamour for her to get a shot at the Champion in Cheltenham. For once in his life, O’Leary went with the flow. Despite having once proclaimed Apple’s Jade would get lapped in a Champion Hurdle, it’s easy to imagine Elliott was in his ear encouraging him.

A hero

“As I always say, if you want to be a jockey and you don’t want to be champion jockey, then you shouldn’t be doing it. If you want to be a trainer and you don’t want to be champion trainer, you shouldn’t be doing it.

“If you’ve got a horse with a chance of winning the Champion Hurdle you have to give it a go. It’s one of those races; if she wins a Champion Hurdle, she’s a hero. She’s a hero in my eyes anyway. But if she could do that she’d be something special,” said the trainer who will be 41 in a couple of weeks.

His rise from obscurity over the last dozen years still represents one of racing’s most unlikely success stories.

Having already won the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Don Cossack in 2016, and landed a second Aintree National with Tiger Roll last year, a Champion Hurdle success would complete an unofficial Triple Crown of jump racing’s most famous prizes.

Elliott’s willingness to take a shot with Apple’s Jade over a trip he feels is probably short of her best reflects a perspective not readily associated with someone renowned for a remorseless drive for winners.

Samcro and Tiger Roll are put through their paces at Gordon Elliott’s yard. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Samcro and Tiger Roll are put through their paces at Gordon Elliott’s yard. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Apple’s Jade would be odds-on in the Mares’. Both trainer and owner have always preached the credo of targeting the most winnable race. Apple’s Jade is in the form of her life but she faces the prospect of taking on Buveur D’Air, who is chasing a Champion Hurdle hat-trick.

There is also the complicating factor of how the mare lost at last year’s festival after coming into season at the wrong time. She did it again subsequently at Punchestown.

The steps taken to try and ensure timing didn’t compromise Apple’s Jade’s fortunes this season have paid off spectacularly so far. The worry her cycle may intervene again hasn’t gone and Elliott will be far from alone in monitoring every move the Apple of his eye makes in the coming weeks.

‘Irish banker’

The overwhelming significance of Cheltenham’s four days means the mood of up to 60 horses will be watched like hawks.

They include the Gold Cup contender Shattered Love as well as the star novices Battleoverdoyen (Ballymore Novice Hurdle) and Delta Work (RSA Chase). Envoi Allen is favourite for the Champion Bumper and is only on the first steps of what could be a stellar career over jumps.

Whatever they eventually do however, none are likely to replace Tiger Roll in their trainer’s affections.

The diminutive National hero looked better than ever when winning a Grade Two hurdle on Sunday.

With wins in three different Cheltenham races already under his belt he looks like being perhaps the ‘Irish banker’ of the whole meeting in the Cross-Country event he won last year.

“It’d put a smile on your face looking at a horse like him,” said Elliott.

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