Wednesday 19 December 2018

'I can't describe what it's like to have a winner at Cheltenham. For someone like me, who puts their whole life into it, it's the best feeling in the world'

Outsider Gordon Elliott is doing things differently in racing, and thriving, writes Michael Verney

Trainer Gordon Elliott. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Trainer Gordon Elliott. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

There's one guarantee with Gordon Elliott - he won't be answering his phone between half one and two o'clock as that's the time when his beloved Home and Away is on, and he has no shame in admitting it.

All attention focusses on Summer Bay during that half an hour but it's probably the only time of the day when he's switched off from the racing world as the Meath trainer is always plotting and planning with winners at the forefront of his mind.

Even the most ambitious of schemes could not have predicted his remarkable rise through the ranks; however, as a 29-year-old Elliott worked the oracle with the problematic Silver Birch to secure the Aintree Grand National in 2007, just a year after taking out his licence.

That came before he had even trained a winner in Ireland, with the former jockey - who rode nearly 50 winners and had lots of point-to-point success - instead opting to send many of his string to obscure tracks across the water like Perth, Bangor and Stratford in search of victory rather than attempting more competitive affairs in his homeland.

Elliott did things differently from the start. Careers in racing are usually passed down through generations but nobody told Gordon that; his father a panel-beater - most of his family work in the car industry - and his mother a housewife.

While rival trainers Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson - his chief rivals for next week's Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award - look comfortable in racing's finery with tweed and trilby, Elliott is at home in jeans, a bomber jacket and the obligatory woolly hat.

The Cullentra, Co Meath handler bucks convention but it has served him well to be his own man and in the 11 years since his breakthrough win, Elliott's achievements are scarcely believable, with more than 1,000 winners including Cheltenham Gold Cup victory with Don Cossack (pictured right) two years ago.

Retired jockey Davy Condon has played no small part in Elliott's rise, riding several winners - including Bayan in the 2014 Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot - since starting their partnership eight years ago when he returned from 18 months in Dubai, where he was a barn manager at Hamdan Al Maktoum's stables, to take up an assistant trainer's role with him.

When Elliott's former assistant Olly Murphy - who has already enjoyed great success in his fledgling training career - decided to embark on his own journey, Condon jumped at the opportunity to learn from Elliott and marvels at what he has achieved in such a short space of time.

"It's mad altogether," Condon says. "In 2010 he was training three or four years and he was only renting yards. He was struggling to get a horse to win a nice race in Ireland, he had to bring most of his horses to England to win.

"He only had the few horses for Gigginstown (now his main employer) and wasn't their main trainer but he just took off from then and has gone from strength to strength. For a fella who started with nothing, it's unreal what he's after doing."

Tom Malone, a former compatriot of Elliott's in the weighing room during their time with the legendary English trainer Martin Pipe, provides him with several horses in his new role as bloodstock agent and admits his meteoric rise has surprised him.

"I didn't expect him to be the global star that he has become. If you asked me when he started off, I'd have said, 'He'll do grand, his business brain wouldn't be the best', and he would tell you that himself. He might have neglected that side of it in the past, but not anymore," Malone explains.

Malone feels one of his greatest attributes is staff selection and Condon - who shares assistant training duties with Ian 'Busty' Amond and still rides out four or five times every day - feels his loyalty to those who have helped him reach the top will keep him at the summit.

With an extensive staff of over 70 listed on his brilliant website (, it's clear that he values them all.

"One of the reasons I was so keen to come back here is that it's a lovely place to work. Gordon has built up a brilliant team. It's a happy, friendly place and there really is great camaraderie here. I started riding for him in 2010 and most of the same lads are still here," Condon says.

"When I started with him, he had a load of people who he grew up with and worked with and local lads, they were all with him from the start and they're still there. For example, Simon McGonagle and himself were always good pals and rode point-to-point together.

"They're from neighbouring villages and he's head lad Simon runs the yard and it runs so well because Gordon trusts that he can run the yard when he's not around. Shane McCann (work rider of Samcro and known as 'The Judge') is head feed man, his brother Joey runs his overflow yard.

"There is plenty of racing and Gordon has loads of runners at virtually every meeting. When he can't go racing, he likes someone to be there, primarily to look after our owners. They keep the show on the road and that's not lost on Gordon."

Elliott was in flying form earlier this week, just six days out from the Festival as he held the audience at the Cheltenham preview in Dublin's Dtwo Bar in the palm of his hand with a string of witty one-liners, which no doubt endears him to owners.

No one was safe from his sharp sense of humour, with regular jockey Davy Russell, trainer Joseph O'Brien, retired rider David Casey, racing expert Garry O'Brien and the legendary AP McCoy all feeling the brunt of his enthusiastic nature.

Working with Elliott on a daily basis poses its challenges, however, and he's all business when it comes to training horses, as Condon outlines.

"I suppose it's a bit different now. I can't get off and tell him how a horse went and walk away, I'm there the whole day now. He's grand to deal with really but put it this way, you wouldn't win an argument with him, so I wouldn't disagree with him," a grinning Condon says.

"If you did have a row with him you'd come back to him half an hour later and then you might get some sense into him. At the start of the argument he's right, and you'll figure it out after that.

"But like all the best businesspeople and sportspeople, Elliott is driven by success and the next race and the strive for the next winner is always top of his agenda as he looks to further expand his operation, something which will frighten other trainers.

"He just loves the game and it's all about the next winner. Winners don't have an outside life outside of racing; racing is number one and that's it and no one else or nothing else matters really and that's why they're so successful," Condon outlines.

"He seems to be growing the whole time. He has about 200 stables and he's on about building more, so when the summer time comes I'd say there'll be more stables up. It's hard to believe he went from renting a yard of 50 or 60 horses to training over 200."

Six winners at last year's Festival sent his career tally to 14, wrestling the Irish Independent top trainer award from Mullins and with headline acts like Apple's Jade, Cause Of Causes and Samcro all involved next week, there's a fair chance his total will be significantly bolstered.

A late Mullins surge at the Punchestown Festival denied him his maiden Irish trainer's championship last season but with a commanding €420,000 advantage this term, his time as champion trainer looks to be getting closer.

Considering he's only just turned 40 - and could potentially have another at least another 20 years at the head of the sport - that's not half bad. But what does the man himself think the upcoming trip to the Cotswolds and his achievements in the training ranks?

"Even mentioning it makes you smile. You can't even describe what it's like to have a winner at Cheltenham. For someone like me, who puts their whole life into it, it's the best feeling in the world," Elliott says.

"I'm in a very lucky position. I've got a lot of good horses, good owners and good staff. I enjoy every day of it, I enjoy what I do and I'm very lucky. I have a job that's not really a job.

"I suppose I'm very unlucky to be born in the same era as Willie Mullins, who is probably the greatest trainer we've ever seen. If he was 50 years older or I was 50 years younger, I'd say I'd be in a lot better position.

"Willie is a gentleman. He sets the standard and we all have to keep chasing. He's a great man and to be in the same breathe as him is unbelievable."

Elliott has also raised the bar for what can be achieved, and his sights are set even higher.

Irish Independent

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