Never doubting the Don
Gordon Elliott's trust in his stable star will be tested at Kempton
Faith. Belief. Hope. It is these that wrap a warm blanket around the mid-winter, making Christmas more than an excuse to polish off the entire contents of a large tin of sweets while refusing to exercise any more than the effort it takes to press a button on the remote control. Whether your faith is in the homeless family whose first child was born in a stable, your belief is that a jolly elderly man in a cherry red suit will surprise you with the perfect present or the simple hope that the turning of the year heralds a brighter future, December is suffused with faith, hope and belief.
In many ways National Hunt racing is similar to Christmas. Like excited children counting down the days until Santa defies physics, fans and pundits alike mark the calendar until Cheltenham week in March. Actual Christmas, with Leopardstown and Kempton in particular, provides a crucial pointer towards the likely gifts to be borne in March.
The prizes to be won at Kempton and Leopardstown are not merely unwanted Christmas gifts. Kempton's King George Chase on St Stephen's Day and the seven Grade One races at Leopardstown on the four days after December 25 are some of the most coveted prizes of the entire jumping season. Faith, hope and belief sustain and fuel the dreams of trainers, owners and jockeys.
Gordon Elliott has always believed in Don Cossack. From the moment the strapping gelding arrived in his Meath stables, the trainer felt he was destined for greatness. It was a view he had no compunction about expressing, something Don Cossack's owner - Michael O'Leary, a man not noted for his reticence - was less than thrilled about.
"Everyone was hard on this horse earlier in his life when I said he was the best I had, something Michael O'Leary wasn't too happy about," Elliott smiled, before adding tellingly, "he's still the best I have."
Considering the collection of talent residing at the trainer's Cullentra House Stables outside Longwood, that is some statement both on the ability of Don Cossack and Elliott's faith in the horse.
After Don Cossack won his bumper at Naas on the October Bank Holiday weekend of 2011, it was a view Elliott was willing to share with the assembled press. Two further wins that season lent more credence to his opinion but a novice hurdling career that was as flat as the 7-Up of childhood illnesses made many outside of Cullentra doubt the Don.
Elliott never relinquished a tight grip on hope and the man who burst onto the training scene when Silver Birch and Robbie Power stunned Aintree in the 2007 Grand National knew that whatever Don Cossack achieved in his early career would only improve once he came up against fences.
Success on his first outing in a chase at Galway on 2013's October Bank Holiday Weekend set Don Cossack on the way to his initial Grade One triumph in the Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse. Just when it seemed that Elliott's belief in Don Cossack had been proven right, it began to look like he had flattered to deceive. No more victories followed until Punchestown in October of 2014. From then on, Don Cossack has been brilliant and brave.
That Punchestown Grade Three initiated a sequence of eight wins in nine races, his only defeat a third place in Cheltenham's Ryanair Chase. Don Cossack dazzled at Aintree and danced around Punchestown to the delight of Elliott.
It's all about faith.
So brilliant was Don Cossack last season that he was the highest rated chaser in Ireland and Britain when the handicappers announced their ratings in May. At the start of December he was declared the first joint winner of the HRI Horse of the Year along with Champion Hurdler Faugheen. Elliott's faith is being rewarded by the sleighload.
Don Cossack negotiated a potentially tricky seasonal reappearance in the JNWine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal early last month and he is set to be the Christmas star at Kempton next Saturday when he contests the King George VI Chase. "Don Cossack worked very well on Wednesday and I'm really looking forward to running him in the King George," Elliott says.
"He will do one more bit of work and then travel over to Kempton on Wednesday. He has won and run well around Aintree which is a flat track like Kempton so I think it will suit him over there. It is going to be a very competitive race."
Elliott's horse is 5/2 favourite to conquer a Kempton field that could include the last two winners of the race - Silviniaco Conti and Cue Card - Hennessy winner Smad Place and Gold Cup third Road To Riches. However, it is the dual Cheltenham festival winner Vautour which Elliott nominates as the horse most likely to prevail. Since arriving at Willie Mullins' Carlow base, Vautour has only been beaten once and that was a shock defeat to Elliott's Clarcam at Leopardstown last Christmas.
No matter where he goes, Elliott cannot avoid the man who bestrides Irish racing like a colossus. Many believe that Elliott is the trainer best-placed to end the Mullins' hegemony.
That faith is nourished by Elliott's actions. Last week he recorded his fastest century of winners in Ireland and Britain and with the firepower he has ready to load over Christmas and beyond, his ambition is fuelled.
"We are very lucky to have a team of nice horses," he deflects the attention away modestly.
"It was nice to train the hundred winners but I would love to have 100 winners in Ireland in a season. That's the aim for the rest of this season anyway."
With the normal helping of good fortune, that goal should be achieved in 2016. Before racing today he had amassed 77 winners for the season, just 20 behind the reigning champion Mullins but 41 ahead of third-placed Henry de Bromhead. Last season was his best to date with 92 winners in Ireland but that was still shy of half the total amassed by Mullins.
That indicates the sheer scale of the mountain facing him, an Everest-sized challenge for a man adept at climbing mountains.
Large ones have been conquered on the way to his current position but the daddy of them all looms large. Elliott has been anointed as the trainer most likely to challenge Mullins but what does the man himself have to say about both the task and his chances of making the summit?
"It would be great to beat Willie Mullins some day but I think he will be champion trainer for a while more to come," he begins.
However, this is no plámásing of his rival in the clichéd manner that weary fans and journalists are fed up of listening to from sportspeople and managers afraid of riling their opposition with loose lips.
Elliott continues: "Willie is an absolute gentleman and he sets the bar. That bar is getting higher every day but I am always striving to improve and always trying to add something. I'll keep trying to get better and trying to catch him."
To do that, Elliott needs Don Cossack to be at his best but he also requires a team of horses capable of winning plenty of races, spearheaded by a group whose ability matches those of the best around. In No More Heroes, another to race in the maroon and white of O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud, he may have discovered another star.
No More Heroes did a very accurate impression of Don Cossack when winning the Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse on November 29 and Elliott is hopeful he can make it three wins from three races over fences in the Grade One Neville Hotels Novice Steeplechase at Leopardstown on December 29.
"He looked very good at Fairyhouse and he has come out of the race well. We will work him again later in the week and I think he could be the real deal," Elliott said of the six-year-old.
Hope for the future already while believing in the greatness of the present. Mindfulness gurus would be impressed.
Faith, hope and belief are not just for Christmas, not just in Santa Claus, but for life.
Sunday Indo Sport