Gordon Elliott

New mindset, same goal

Dark times brought by battle with the scales are a distant memory for high-flying Keith Donoghue

Words: Ronan Groome • Photos: Healy Racing

When the final race was run in the 2022/23 jumps season, you’d be forgiven for thinking Gordon Elliott’s return for the campaign was underwhelming. Perhaps there is a bit of recency bias at play because when the Willie Mullins bandwagon gets rolling at Punchestown these days, the Closutton handler has sole ownership of the spotlight as the curtain closes.

However, when you sit back and put it all together, the numbers Elliott put up last term tell a different story from his perspective. A total of 188 winners was his third highest ever seasonal tally in Ireland, while his 36 winners in Britain was his joint second highest. He had ten Grade 1 winners, three Cheltenham Festival winners and three Grade 1 winners at Aintree alone.

They are big numbers, a fabulous season by anyone’s metrics. So why does that underwhelming feeling still linger? Perhaps because the standards at Cullentra House have gone so high due to past success. Perhaps because Cheltenham has become the defining four days of every top trainer’s season and three winners there for Elliott is seen as below par. Or perhaps because we measure his success in line with that of his great rival. It may well be a mix of all three but the latter suggestion holds the most weight for this writer. After 17 straight champion trainer titles, the yearning for Mullins to have a bona fide challenger is always there. The mind casts back to the 2017 Punchestown Festival, captivated tenfold by a thrilling title race crescendo, the two trainers trading blows until Mullins pulled away on the final day.

The pursuit of Mullins needs to be perfect and so the six-month suspension Elliott served the season before last was a sizeable speed bump to his momentum. Still, that episode could have ended his quest completely. Instead, he’s still fighting, reinvigorated by the experience, by the loyal group of owners who stuck by him, and by a team of staff who have rowed in when the going was at its toughest.

With that said, it’s not overreaching to suggest it was a life-changing turn of events, and the Meath man has a new perspective as a result. Sitting in his owners’ room in Cullentra House, he reflects on his first full season since his comeback and where he is now in his own insatiable quest to be champion. “I’m happy where I am,” he says, sitting back into his chair. “If you asked me before I got suspended, what’s the one thing I’d like to do in the world, it’s to be champion trainer, and I still want to be. I dream about it every night and I hope it happens someday but before I was trying to make it happen, now I’m going to try and let it happen.

“I’m just trying to train winners and keep doing the best for all my horses and all my owners, whereas before I was panicking every day, thinking ‘winner, winner, winner’. You might be doing a bit more with horses than you should be, maybe running them more than you should. “We’re still rebuilding. Obviously I lost a lot of horses and owners, through no one’s fault only my own, but I’ve kept my head down, I worked very hard through the whole thing. I think if I can keep going the way I am, if it doesn’t happen someday, I’ll be disappointed. I hope I still have a lot of years left in me training racehorses.”

It goes without saying, Elliott’s task of chasing down Mullins is a daunting one. The Closutton behemoth needed no second invitation to take full advantage of any give from his main rival. He surpassed €7m in prizemoney for the first time in Ireland last season, and a gap of €3.49m between him and his nearest challenger is the largest it has ever been in the last 11 years, ever since their sequence of finishing first and second in the championship began. When you combine the prizemoney for both, they had enough to cover the next 31 trainers in the table, but the two-horse race was basically over at the halfway stage.

Elliott’s rebuild was never an overnight project, so it’s reasonable to expect further gains this season and next, notwithstanding that he is already producing serious numbers, with clear daylight again emerging between him and the chasing pack.

“To be honest, it looks like the bigger yards are getting bigger and the smaller yards are struggling a bit,” he picks up off the point. “I don’t know whether that is good or bad for the game, everyone has got their own opinion. I worked very hard for everything I have. I started with nothing. Ten or twelve years ago, I had a very small number of horses but I’ve worked hard to get the whole thing going and of course I want to stay at the top.

“I’m probably just unlucky to be in the same era as Willie Mullins. It’s a bit like Richard Johnson and Tony McCoy, but Richard Johnson got there eventually. I’ve been second now to Willie for 11 years in a row. I think I am a bit unlucky to be born in the same era as probably one of the greatest trainers of all time. All I can do is keep improving and trying to train winners. I’ll keep chasing him. If he keeps improving we all have to improve with him. I keep doing my best, that’s all I can do.

“But as I said, two or three years ago, I was trying to make it happen, and I just maybe look at life a little bit differently now. Still, all I care about is training horses, I don’t care about anything else, maybe Meath GAA and Summerhill, but nothing much after that.

“The pressure is always there. The phone is always ringing and sometimes you might forget to ring someone back but it’s not because you don’t want to ring them back it’s just there can be so many people pulling out of you at the same time.

“Two or three years ago, I was trying to make it happen, and I just maybe look at life a little bit differently now”

“Listen, I’m so lucky to be in the position I’m in, I’d never give out about it, I love it. You learn a lot about life when you sit back and look at it. I definitely look at life a bit differently now. I love training horses. It’s my life. I definitely appreciate it more now.”

It says much about Elliott’s year that arguably the biggest story emerging out of Cullentra was not that of the horses, but the jockeys. Jack Kennedy, riding as well as ever with a scarcely believable 77 winners to his name, would cruelly have his last ride of the ‘22/23 season on the first weekend of the year, when a fall from Top Bandit at Naas rendered him a fifth broken leg. Davy Russell had retired to massive fanfare just three weeks previously, meaning there was no senior jockey available to Elliott. Big decisions needed to be made but it was a simple call.

“Gerri Colombe could be a big player in the Gold Cup”

Sire Du Berlais (Mark Walsh) secured the first leg of a famous Cheltenham-Aintree double in the Stayers’ Hurdle, with stablemate Teahupoo (Davy Russell) in third

“I didn’t need to think about asking Davy to come back at all,” Elliott recalls. “I just felt it was the right thing to do. Obviously Jack was flying at the time. He was well clear in the championship and it looked like he couldn’t do anything wrong.

“Davy and Jack always bounced off each other but it was getting to the stage where Jack was getting that senior that if I didn’t make him first jockey, he might have been getting offers somewhere else. Davy was coming to the end of his career and Jack was right at the start of it. We discussed it and it was the right thing for Davy to retire but thankfully, he was only gone for a couple of weeks - when I rang him, there wasn’t much to think about.

“Look if Jordan (Gainford) and Sam (Ewing) had two or three more months under their belts, I wouldn’t even have thought twice about it but at that stage I didn’t think it was the right thing to do for them. They are two top-class jockeys but I didn’t want to throw them in at the deep end.

“I sat both of them down and spoke to them in the kitchen, there was no going behind their backs, and I still think it was the best thing they did because the two of them are far better jockeys for it.”

Suffice to say, while Russell provided Grade 1 success at Dublin Racing Festival, the return to Cheltenham didn’t go exactly as it would in a story book. Michael O’Leary very publicly questioned his decision to return which led to an awkward tension.

“Ah look it, Davy rode a few winners for us. Cheltenham didn’t go ideal but that’s Cheltenham. The ball didn’t bounce for Davy more than anything, just getting beaten on Galvin by Delta (Work), Pied Piper was only beaten a head, Teahupoo was very unlucky for him. It was just one of those weeks really.

“I’m probably just unlucky to be in the same era as Willie Mullins. It’s a bit like Richard Johnson and Tony McCoy, but Richard Johnson got there eventually”

“Three winners at Cheltenham is not to be sniffed at. We were third in a Gold Cup, we had a heap of seconds. You could argue Gerri Colombe and Pied Piper would have won on another day. If we had five winners, it would have been an amazing week. But look, any day you come out of Cheltenham with a winner it’s brilliant because it’s so hard to win there.”

Russell slowly fading out of the game after Cheltenham didn’t feel right and Elliott wasn’t going to let it happen.

“Everyone thought it was over for him and I didn’t want it to finish like that. He has been part of my team for a long, long time. I asked him to come back for Aintree. I didn’t think someone like him who’s put so much into the game deserved to go out like that. He couldn’t have gone out in a better way, he rode two Grade 1 winners and it was perfect.

“We had a good Aintree again but I wouldn’t say it was a big pre-planned thing, or a change of the way we do things. We kept Irish Point back all right. Gerri was very good there but if he won at Cheltenham, we probably wouldn’t have gone to Aintree, so it’s funny the way things work. Sire Du Berlais is one of a kind (to do the Stayers’ Hurdle/Liverpool Hurdle double).

“We’ve had a great season, ten Grade 1 winners again. We’re in a very lucky position. You’re walking around the yard and maybe we’re lacking a bit of firepower at the top end but we’ll get there, we’ll keep reinvesting and keep buying and trying to build the team back up.”

Undoubtedly the lowlight of the season was tragically losing the seriously talented Mighty Potter at Fairyhouse. The four-time Grade 1 winner had the jumping world at his hooves and was a devastating loss to the yard but perhaps provided a good case study into Elliott’s newfound perspective on life. After reacting to Mighty Potter’s passing on Racing TV, Elliott received criticism on social media, largely concerning the attitude he had been perceived to show.

“I was more upset about losing the horse than anyone and I don’t know how it came across that I wasn’t. I didn’t feel like I’d said much too wrong but look, that’s social media, I didn’t lose much sleep over it. Anytime you lose a horse it’s devastating but at the same time, you see things happening around the world now, things happening to kids, and you just have to keep things in perspective.

“Look, it was a blow to Andrew and Gemma (Brown). It’s the first big horse they’ve had but unfortunately that is the game. They’re very good owners and have had plenty of luck so far.”

Elliott’s impact continues to go far and wide. In March, he trained his first Dubai Carnival winner Coachello. In October he sent out three winners on the American Grand National card at Far Hills, New Jersey. In August he won his fourth Galway Plate in eight years through Ash Tree Meadow.

But while all those wins are big, it’s what happens inside of the jumps season ‘proper’ that carries the most weight for him. Gold Cup hope Gerri Colombe will lead a relatively young team of horses as he looks to gain back more ground.

“I love training winners,” he asserts. “We’re lucky enough, I’ve a good team behind me, good owners. The last five or six years we’ve trained over 150 winners every year. In Ireland that’s fair going. We’re trying to rebuild and regenerate all the time but we’ve got nice horses.

“Gerri Colombe could be a big player in the Gold Cup. Everything has to go right for him but he has done very little wrong so far in his career. I thought he showed a lot of the attributes you’d like to see in Aintree. A lot of people think he’s a mud lover but jeez, I thought he was very good in Aintree, the way he travelled and jumped on better ground. Hopefully he can continue improving this season, continue to get better.” And on a macro scale, that’s the order of the day for Elliott.