Sport Horse Racing

Thursday 8 December 2016

Elliott has maestro Mullins in his sights

Kerry National the latest big-race heist as O'Leary's Gigginstown camp lead the plaudits

Johnny Ward

Published 19/09/2016 | 02:30

Highflying trainer Gordon Elliott with jockey Lisa O’Neill in the winner’s enclosure after she had guided his Wrath Of Titans to victory in Wednesday’s Guinness Kerry National at Listowel. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Highflying trainer Gordon Elliott with jockey Lisa O’Neill in the winner’s enclosure after she had guided his Wrath Of Titans to victory in Wednesday’s Guinness Kerry National at Listowel. Photo: Don MacMonagle

One of the most remarkable aspects of Irish Champions Weekend was the spread of triumphant trainers.

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Aidan O'Brien's dominance is well-established; so, that the 16 races were shared among 14 trainers was staggering. O'Brien and Dermot Weld had two each; a dozen rivals had a cherished winner.

These things are somewhat cyclical but we have a situation where it feels as though the Flat racing rations are shared around more than in the jumps game, which is supposed to be more egalitarian - one which gives the small man a chance.

Jumps combat will become akin to the long-established hegemony of Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain. But the gap between perennial winner Willie Mullins and the upstart Gordon Elliott is narrowing.

The consistency of Mullins in recent seasons has been startling: 185 Irish winners last season, 187 in 2014/'15 and 185 the campaign previous. If that illustrates his depth of squad talent and an ability to avoid bugs in the barn, Elliott's figures show pretty staggering progression.

Three seasons ago, Elliott had 56 Irish winners. The following term he had 92. Last year he had 123. This term, he leads Mullins by seven.

Elliott's capturing of another major prize - the Kerry National on Wednesday - was timely, in that it sets up what could be something resembling a title race as the narrative changes from Flat to National Hunt. His revelation that he has "about 50" horses for Gigginstown alone this season must make other trainers weep.

Elliott's Listowel victory was thanks to Wrath Of Titans, which was taken away from Sandra Hughes. Gigginstown's modus operandi echoes the ruthless business ideals that made Ryanair so successful and Michael O'Leary had every right to take away his steeds from other trainers he deemed not to be producing the goods, in particular Hughes and Tony Martin this year.

One could argue as to the harshness of it all but none against the success Gigginstown is achieving. And the O'Learys are rarely apt to lovey-dovey talk, so the way Eddie talks about Elliott is intriguing.

"All you can do," the main man in the Gigginstown operation argues, "is look at the strides he has made. He handles everything very, very well. He is extremely relaxed - as are the horses. And it seems to work.

"Simply, he is a natural trainer. I would say that he works hard and leads from the front. The people he has working for him are young and they appreciate how he operates.

Treatment

"He gives a young person a chance and for us he is very easy to work with. Also he appreciates an ordinary winner as much as the good ones and he treats all owners equally - we get no favourable treatment."

Eddie could easily be talking about his brother Michael when he talks of Elliott being "very honest, very straight - what you see is what you get" but one of the County Meath trainer's closest mates believes that the team he puts together is key.

Gavin Cromwell, who shoes the horses at Cullentra Stables, has been friendly with Elliott for years. "He is very ambitious and the big thing is he always tends to get the right people around him all the time. He works hard at it and his feet are still firmly on the ground as a person. He is always thinking outside the box."

Elliott, Cromwell says, "loves the bit of craic and enjoys his social life" - which can also be said of the man he is trying to dethrone. Their relationship, if not necessarily close, is very friendly and both are extremely hungry.

Should Elliott stay close to the top, one could not rule out something of a challenge to Mullins exactly ten seasons on from when he finished second to Noel Meade. The only semblance of a trainers' title challenge he has had since was from Paul Nicholls last year and that - a British title assault - was more of an afterthought than anything else.

It's decided on prize-money, which favours Mullins as he has all those stars - particularly the Rich Ricci riches - and Elliott has lost No More Heroes, with Don Cossack's future up in the air. But with all these point-to-pointers graduating - and Eddie O'Leary says they will be divided equally this season between Elliott, Pat Doyle and Henry De Bromhead - Elliott's ascendancy will continue.

Moreover, he has Bryan Cooper riding the Gigginstown horses and the precocious Jack Kennedy having the pick of the remainder. Both, like the many stable staff who are so loyal to the trainer and happy to admit as much, play a key part in an increasingly formidable operation.

Kennedy has not long turned 17 and perhaps enough has not been written about how formidable he will be - quite possibly better than Ruby Walsh. It was Elliott who grabbed the Dingle native, a pony racing prodigy, first; it could prove one of the master-strokes of his career.

And, curiously enough, there is nothing especially impressive about Gordon Elliott outwardly, whereas Mullins - who turned 60 last week - exudes a modicum of mystique. Elliott could not seem more normal, one who is very sociable and happens to be a top-class trainer who had no background in the game. His staff seem to adore him and the media cannot speak more highly of him but he is not afraid to be the boss when needs be.

Billy Lee's main claim to fame might be his role in the sublime 'Castletown Donkey Derby' on YouTube. A little kid then, showing an ability of sorts to cajole a recalcitrant ass to negotiate the perimeter of a field in Limerick, he honed his talents since.

Scoring in the finale yesterday at Gowran, he brought his tally to 46 in what has been much his most successful season to date. What is all the more laudable about this is that his old allies - Tommy Stack and David Wachman - have not provided him with a single winner this season.

Increasingly he is seen as Willie McCreery's stable jockey but, whatever about that successful axis, Lee deserves to be where he is today. He is a gifted rider, exceptionally kind on the horses he rides and an extremely versatile and stylish jockey.

He is at or near his peak, despite a paucity of Group 1 challenges, and admitted that his confidence was "sky-high" at Listowel. If a major job were to present itself in the next few years, he appeals as an ideal candidate - but he is also the type of guy to whom loyalty matters.

Upping The Ante

Henry De Bromhead has not had many goes at the Racing Post Arkle on day one of the Cheltenham festival, but he saddled Sizing John to beat all bar Douvan this year and he won it with Sizing Europe in 2010.

He has a major player in the 2017 renewal in Indentity Thief. His progress in the 12 months since his debut has been incredible, winning a senior Grade 1, the Fighting Fifth, in that time.

He concluded the campaign by gamely chasing Vroum Vroum Mag at Punchestown, perhaps his best performance yet.

Why he is 20/1? He is possibly the best hurdler in the Arkle picture, is trained by a man who produces superb jumpers of a fence and that is his plan.

Bet: 1pt Identity Thief to win the Arkle, 20/1.

RIDE OF THE WEEK

Shane Foley rode an admirably patient race on Jealika at Listowel on Monday. He needed the front-runners to come back and so they did, with Jealika (matched at 23/1 in running, SP 5/1), powering home. Listowel can prove a cold house for horses held up, yet Foley rode an astute race nonetheless on a horse with a poor draw.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"To me, Billy is the best rider in Ireland."

Willie McCreery's high praise for Billy Lee after the Listed win of Champagne Or Water at Listowel on Wednesday. This is Lee's best season of his career, though McCreery might admit on reflection that Pat Smullen is top dog.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

Rebel Racing @tips_ROI Sep 16

A year ago Tribal Path was rated 45 in a race at Laytown, done on the line today off 87, a credit to @denglish_racing

The remarkable improvement of Tribal Path gets a Twitter endorsement. Before Damien English acquired Tribal Path, he had won once - in January 2013. This year he has scored six times.

GAMBLE OF THE WEEK

Aydoun at Listowel on Wednesday. The Dermot Weld-trained newcomer had a tough task to beat Galway second Burning Sword. He trounced him by a over four lengths, backed from around 5/1 into 11/10. The bookmakers who opened up the runner-up at odds-on the day before had to lay a guaranteed SP of 9/4, giving them no realistic chance of winning on the race.

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