Reversal of fortunes
Gordon Elliott tells David Jennings how last year's Festival went from Tuesday torment to a winner-packed party beyond his wildest dreams
Gordon Elliot had seven runners on the opening day of The Festival in 2018 and the last four of them failed to even finish.
Apple's Jade was the skimpiest favourite of the entire week, but took only third in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle. He had two runners in the National Hunt Chase, including Jury Duty, who was sent off the 4/1 favourite but unseated Jamie Codd at the second-last when out of contention.
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De Plotting Shed, a strongly fancied 11/2 chance for the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase, was pulled up on the home turn when beaten. Tycoon Prince had already departed the scene by that stage, Jack Kennedy pulling him up quickly after a desperate mistake four out.
Considering he saw a 1/2 shot stuffed and his last four runners on the day, three of them priced 6/1 or shorter, not complete, you cannot blame Elliott for describing his Tuesday torment as "rough". Perhaps the words used during the post-mortem that night were not as consumer-friendly.
"Tuesday was tough for us to take," Elliott admits. "We were hoping Apple's Jade would get us off the mark. She was the one we fancied most for the week. She ticked the boxes as she'd been there and done it all before.
"She just wasn't herself on the day and ran below-par. She was in-season, that was a recurring theme with her through the second half of last season.
"It was very frustrating as she was always great in the lead-up to a race but then it ruined her chances on the day. In this game, though, you can't dwell on the disappointments for too long. You have to pick yourself up and go again. There's no other option."
Elliott won eight of the remaining 21 races, despite not having a representative in the Ryanair, Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle, St James's Place Foxhunter, Dawn Run Mares Novices' Hurdle or Johnny Henderson Grand Annual.
To summarise, he was successful in 53 per cent of the races in which he had runners over Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. That is an absurd statistic in anyone's language, even the one spoken by greats like Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls.
Samcro started the resurgence. The unbeaten son of Germany was the buzz horse heading into last year's Festival. He was the one who wasn't going to come off the bridle in the Ballymore, Wednesday's opener, according to every Cheltenham preview night. There was a running joke between Matt Chapman and Michael O'Leary about him being the second coming of Christ.
"With horses like Samcro there's always a lot of pressure on them delivering, as you've seen with him this year," Elliott explains.
"That day at Cheltenham, when there was big, big pressure on him, he delivered. He did it well, the way we expected him to.
"There was a lot of pressure walking into the racecourse on the Wednesday. I could really feel it. I suppose the fact Tuesday didn't go to plan added to it. There was a lot of pressure, for me, for Jack (Kennedy), for the whole team, so I was delighted Samcro did the business. We needed him to. That got us back in the game. We could enjoy the week after that."
And boy did you enjoy it, Gordon. With the pressure cooker turned down a little, Dounikos was slightly disappointing in the RSA, but Barra ran above herself in the Coral Cup, finishing third to Bleu Berry.
Wednesday was a success even before the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase came along.
Up stepped Tiger Roll.
The ground was believed to be against the pint-sized winner of the 2014 JCB Triumph Hurdle and 2017 National Hunt Chase and he drifted from 7/2 to 7/1. But ground, trip or track does not trouble Tiger Roll and he surged clear in the hands of Keith Donoghue, the six-footer who somehow wasted down to 11st 4lb to take the ride.
"It's funny, we fancied Cause Of Causes more but Jamie (Codd) said he was never travelling in that ground and it just never happened.
"For Tiger Roll to win three different races at The Festival was brilliant. He's been a great servant to us over the years in all sorts of races.
"I was delighted for Keith, too. He's such an important part of our team and would you believe Keith shed 7lb in no time at all in order to ride Tiger Roll. He got his just rewards. He deserved it.
"Obviously Tiger Roll went on to win the Grand National, which was a very special day, but so was Cheltenham."
Wednesday got even more wonderful as Veneer Of Charm sprang a 33/1 shock in the Boodles Fred Winter.
"You could never be confident about a horse who was well beaten at Navan on his previous start, but I thought he could run okay if things went to plan. He was very green, but got the job done."
Three winners on Wednesday. Did that make up for Tuesday?
"Oh, definitely. The mood was different walking out of the track that night. Completely different," Elliott replies.
Surely Thursday could not compete, could it? Of course it could.
The day began identically as Elliott sent out the opening winner, Shattered Love running away with the JLT Novices' Chase. A shuddering error at the last reduced her winning margin to only seven lengths. It could have been more.
"We did fancy her a bit," the trainer says.
"She had the 7lb mares' allowance and she's built like a gelding. We thought the ground was in her favour too, so it wasn't a massive surprise she won. She was brilliant. It was the perfect way to start."
It was about to get better. Glenloe, your typical JP McManus plunge in the Pertemps Final, was hammered to 9/2 favourite and was expected to provide Elliott with winner number five of the week. He failed by a nose.
Fortunately for Elliott, his other runner in the race was Delta Work, the 6/1 winner under Davy Russell. An ultra-competitive 23-runner handicap was turned into a Gordon Elliott benefit. Remarkable stuff.
"That's when we knew the horses were really flying. To have the 1-2 in the Pertemps was great. I thought Glenloe was a bit unlucky. He missed the last and if he'd jumped it he probably would have won.
"To be first and second in a race like that is unbelievable. On Tuesday I thought, 'oh my God, it's going to be one of those weeks'. It was unbelievable how it changed around."
Five winners quickly became six thanks to The Storyteller. He did everything to throw away the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate by hanging violently after the last, but Russell got him straightened up in the nick of time to see off course specialist Splash Of Ginge.
Two trebles in two days. At The Festival. Unheard of.
Elliott wasn't finished yet. There was a JCB Triumph Hurdle to be won with Farclas, the third day in a row he sent out the opening winner, and Blow By Blow made every yard in the Martin Pipe, a race close to his heart.
"That race means a lot to me so it was great to win it," Elliott says, referring to the contest for conditional riders named after the legendary trainer to whom he was an amateur.
"Blow By Blow got a soft lead and fair play to the horse, he was a Grade 1 winner so had a bit of class. He looked well handicapped, but I thought the ground was too soft for him."
Tuesday felt more like three years ago, not three days, as The Festival turned from hell to heaven in 72 hours.
"To have eight winners was incredible. You go to Cheltenham hoping for one, no more. I thought Apple's Jade might win and I was hoping Samcro would too, but we would have taken one winner at the start of the week. Eight was never a number we thought we'd get near."
Eight is the most winners for a trainer at any Festival - only Willie Mullins in 2015 managed the feat before. Elliott retained his Irish Independent Leading Trainer award, this time with more to spare than in 2017, when his six winners equalled Mullins' total but he came out on top in the photo-finish print thanks to one more second.
"Cheltenham is the be-all and end-all. It is the place we all want to have winners," he says.
"Our whole season revolves around The Festival so to be champion trainer two years in a row means a lot. It really does."
Can he complete the hat-trick in 2019?
"It's been a funny old season with the way the ground has been. We haven't really had a winter or proper soft ground so it's hard to know what to expect. What I do know is we have a lot of nice horses and hopefully one or two will come good. It will be the way it is every year - we'd be thrilled to have any winner at all. Anything else is a bonus."
With the unstoppable Apple's Jade leading his powerful army into battle and last year's Randox Grand National hero Tiger Roll back for more in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, expect Elliott to enter bonus territory once again.