Elliott seeks a new 'Don' as strongest team ready for Festival
Gordon Elliott will run "anything that can walk" at the Punchestown Festival as he bids to win the Irish trainers' title for the first time - but all eyes right now are on Cheltenham.
The Co Meath handler is to have his first Stan James Champion Hurdle runner in Tombstone, which is to be supplemented, while his two Timico Gold Cup runners - Outlander and Don Poli - were both switched from Willie Mullins late last September.
It is Mullins, bidding for a tenth successive title, who Elliott is attempting to dislodge as champion trainer. And it is the Mullins-trained Djakadam which Elliott fears most in the Gold Cup on St Patrick's Day, a race he won last year with since-retired Don Cossack.
He revealed that, with Bryan Cooper likely to ride Outlander, 17-year-old Jack Kennedy will get the leg-up on last year's third, Don Poli, for the first time. The Dingle teenager is also in line to steer Tombstone.
"Don Poli is in great form and his last few runs have been good, though he has had plenty of chances at the top level now and seems a bit short of the very best. I hope he'll be able to race a lot more prominently in Gold Cup this year and he is really enjoying himself these days," he said.
"We decided to skip the Irish Gold Cup with Outlander as he had already had three runs and we thought freshening him up was the right thing to do with a view to the spring. I don't think he's another Don Cossack, there's no point in saying I think he is, but he has surprised us already.
"Djakadam is the main danger I believe and I like Native River. Cue Card has had plenty of chances."
Tombstone emerged as a left-field Champion Hurdle possibility after his victory over Jezki at Gowran. Both he and Petit Mouchoir, a leading fancy in the race on Tuesday week, are set to go chasing next season.
"Tombstone is an unexposed horse. I'm not saying I know he's good enough to win a Champion Hurdle but when you see Petit Mouchoir is third or fourth favourite and Tombstone finished in front of him in the Supreme last year, that would give you hope.
"He was actually supposed to go chasing this season, but he needed a screw put in his joint last year and that just held him up getting back to the track this season. He's perfectly sound now," the trainer added.
He might prefer Empire Of Dirt, switched after the retirement of Colm Murphy, to go for the Gold Cup. However, Michael O'Leary wishes that he runs in the race he sponsors - the Ryanair - and he is one of the strongest Elliott fancies of the week, while Death Duty probably the hottest favourite of all in the Albert Bartlett.
"Death Duty should really be in his comfort zone over three miles. I'd have no worries about better ground; even if it turned up very soft, we'd just drop him in there and take our time. Nothing fazes him and I'm looking forward to next season with him," said Elliott about the horse many consider to be Don Cossack's heir apparent.
There was a surprise guest at yesterday's media open day, in Elliott's yard near Longwood, Co Meath in Kevin Kilbane. The ex-Irish international, who amassed an incredible 110 caps for Ireland, would appreciate Elliott's record having run exactly nine times that figure - 990 horses - in Ireland this season.
It's a numbers game and this young trainer never stops seeking more. "I've 170 stables and we'll have four different gallops soon. We're improving the whole time. I keep saying I'll stop but I'm like a kid when I see a new toy: I want it."
About the barns, the odour of creosote predominates. Every time one visits Elliott, there seems to be evidence of progress, of fresh paint. He was gathering the bricks for an eventual title challenge but nobody would have envisaged the changing of the outlook that resulted from the Gigginstown-Mullins split.
The pretender has rubbished his chance for months but, now 2/5 with the bookmakers, can hardly be taken seriously anymore. "It's something you dream about since you were young, to be champion trainer," he conceded, the filly Barra neighing relentlessly nearby, unhappy with all these unusual visitors.
"I have my feet firmly on the ground but of course you think about it. Still, with the firepower Willie has, he will still be hard to beat.
"Ye tell me every day racing (about the odds). To be honest I think about it of course but won't start talking about it until the last day of Punchestown.
"Everything that can walk will go there! We have to give it a rattle. I thought last year it would take ten years for it to happen."
For a trainer who won the Grand National before he had sent out an Irish winner, fast-tracking is nothing new. Back in 2007 Michael O'Leary may not have even heard of the young upstart who produced Silver Birch - but their axis since has been a phenomenal success, which is not lost on Elliott.
"I started training for Michael and Eddie seven or eight years ago. They are straight with me and I am straight with them. We might disagree but if you work hard and do your best you'll always be OK."
Being brilliant at the job helps too, evidenced by three winners at the Festival last term. "We've a good bunch going of about 30 this year," he says. "No Don - but plenty of chances."