Cheltenham Countdown: Confidence High As Elliott Bids To Retain Festival Title

In contrast to Seven Barrows on Monday, where the mood was a mixture of bullishness tinged with a hint of apprehension, there appeared to be nothing but confidence emanating from all those involved in hosting Tuesday’s visit to the County Meath yard of Gordon Elliott.

Yet, in amongst the positive reports – and oft-heard soundbites – on the yard’s leading lights, there was still some intrigue to be had in reading between the lines in order to try and become an insider at arguably the most powerful National Hunt operation of recent times: Gigginstown House Stud.

Trainer - Gordon Elliott
Trainer - Gordon Elliott Picture: Pat Healy Photography

It was announced in the summer that, following a shuffling of the pack, Elliott would no longer train any of the stud’s point-to-point horses, allowed to concentrate fully on racing under Rules, with the pointers instead being brought along by Mouse Morris, Colin Bowe, Brian Hamilton and Pat Doyle.

Tiger Roll
Tiger Roll Picture: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

It appears to have had a positive effect, not that things were going badly before, though.

Since becoming the youngest trainer to win the Grand National, before he’d even had a winner in his native Ireland, Elliott’s training career has gone from strength to strength, and the facilities at Cullentra House Stables have kept pace. While challenges to Willie Mullins’ dominance in the Irish trainers’ championship have been foiled at 1.01, as an idling Tiger Roll nearly was by a rallying Pleasant Company in last year’s Grand National, it won’t be long before Elliott has his name on the trophy.

Delta Work
Delta Work Picture: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Indeed, having trained a record-equalling eight winners at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, and seemingly heading there with as strong a team this time around, it would be no surprise if the prize for being leading trainer in Gloucestershire is replicated back in Ireland two months later when the prizes and pats on the back are dished out.

Commander of Fleet
Commander of Fleet Picture: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

While she disappointed as a first-team player in the Mares’ Hurdle last term, Apple’s Jade is not just leading Elliott’s Cheltenham team this year but, to borrow a sporting analogy, has gone from the Spurs left-back Mr Bale to the flying Real Madrid winger Señor Bale.

Elliott explained: “The whole world knows what was wrong with her [last year] - it's been well publicised she was in season. We're just hoping it doesn't happen again and keeping an eye and monitoring her. I'm not a veterinary surgeon. I leave it to them and the girls that look after her. They'll keep an eye on her cycle.”

That seems wise. As does the decision to go for the Champion Hurdle, after Apple’s Jade’s impressive win in the Irish equivalent at the Dublin Racing Festival.

“If you’ve got a horse capable of winning a Champion Hurdle you’ve got to give it a go. If she can win a Champion Hurdle she’ll be a hero.”

Nicky Henderson, trainer of the hat-trick-seeking Buveur d’Air, may not feel the same way. But it certainly provides a tantalising clash of the two best hurdlers around.

Not many expected Tiger Roll to win over hurdles at Navan on Sunday – he started at 25/1 in a six-runner race – but his smooth success has Elliott even more confident about a remarkable fourth Cheltenham Festival win, one which would put him on a par (numerically) with the likes of Arkle, Istrabraq and Sir Ken.

“I couldn’t believe how well he won on Sunday, it surprised me, I thought he’d finish second or third last if I’m honest. To win a Grand National and then come back and win a Boyne Hurdle as well, you might think we’d go for the Stayers’ Hurdle, but we’re going for the Cross Country race.

“I’ve got a lot of good horses and he might not be the best horse I’ve ever trained, but he’s definitely one of the most likeable. I’m lucky to have him, he’s one of the favourites around the yard.”

He’d be my favourite too if he’d won me £827,047.

Delta Work is presumably edging up that list himself, having made a big impression in three wins over fences so far this season, and he has Cheltenham Festival form to his name already, having prevailed in a tight finish to the Pertemps last year.

“I’m glad I didn’t go to Leopardstown with him. Davy [Russell] said it was as quick as he wanted it at Christmas and he has plenty of experience. I didn’t think I had anything to gain but everything to lose by running him on quicker ground. There’s probably less pressure on him if he’s not favourite.”

Of course, that might all have changed come 2.10pm on Wednesday 13th March, especially if Elliott has the sort of first day that many expect.

Commander Of Fleet’s chance looks set to come later in the week, in Friday’s three-mile Albert Bartlett rather than Wednesday’s shorter Ballymore, in which Elliott has current second favourite Battleoverdoyen (“I’m happy that he jumps well enough and he’s done all he can do; timing wise, I thought it was the right thing to do to go straight to Cheltenham with him.”)

Perhaps surprisingly, considering the generally stoutly-bred nature of the majority of Gigginstown horses, Elliott lacks a standout contender in either the Ryanair Chase or the Gold Cup itself, though the mare Shattered Love is on target to step up in trip for the Blue Riband event.

“When you go into the unknown with trips it’s a worry with every horse, but if she turned up in the form she did in the John Durkan I think she’d have a great each-way chance. It’s a positive she’s won at the Festival before [last year’s JLT Novices’ Chase] as she’s been over there, travelled.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the career/distance spectrum, Envoi Allen, Thatsy, and Abacadabras were nominated for the Champion Bumper, perhaps a surprise to those who had backed Andy Dufresne for the race following his impressive debut win at Down Royal. Plans, of course, may change, though, and the best clues are often in what’s not said at these stable tours.

Elliott didn’t quite say “no comment”, but his “never say never - he’s got an entry and we’ll see what the weights are” was surely a glimmer of hope for those who have taken note of the Irish Gold Cup third The Storyteller’s prominence at the front of the market for the Coral Cup.

As one of those that has already taken the plunge – at no bigger a price than he currently is I should add - I’m hopeful that Elliott’s love of winning all races at Cheltenham, big or small, overrides the horse’s place claims (but probably no more) in the Ryanair.

One thing is for sure – only a brave man would bet against Elliott winning a third successive trophy for being the leading trainer at the Cheltenham Festival.