Tuesday 13 November 2018

Vincent Hogan: Shadow of giants settling on yards that can only dream

Elliott and Mullins yards look unstoppable after 15-win Festival

It was smiles all-round as Gordon Elliott celebrated winning the Leading Trainer Award alongside former boss Martin Pipe, with horse Blow By Blow – which secured the crown – and jockey Donagh Meyler. Photo: Sportsfile
It was smiles all-round as Gordon Elliott celebrated winning the Leading Trainer Award alongside former boss Martin Pipe, with horse Blow By Blow – which secured the crown – and jockey Donagh Meyler. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Tony Martin's smile concealed an eternity of inexpressible thoughts as hands began reaching towards him, celebrating Anibale Fly's guilt as a brazen social climber.

The first Irish horse home in the Gold Cup, his bay gelding had been a broadly-neglected 33/1 in the market, yet the fist-pumps and back-slaps coming his way in the enclosure were all sand-papered with a cold understanding too. Because another year of Irish dominance at the Festival framed a piercingly narrow narrative.

Winners accrued by Gordon Elliott (8) and Willie Mullins (7) were responsible for the tilted arithmetic from a week that did, at least, reclaim some balance yesterday, with five home winners emerging through the blackening West Country mud.

And there seemed something faintly jarring in the fact that Anibale Fly was Martin's only runner of the week, just as the fourth Gold Cup horse home, Road To Respect, was Noel Meade's.

The Mullins-Elliott rivalry has found such extraordinary traction, the past feels another planet now. Patrick Mullins has spoken before about how, as a boy, Meade's yard cast such a forbidding shadow, it seemed impossible to imagine his parents' operation ever mounting a challenge.

For eight seasons out of nine, the trainers' title went to Castletown in Co Meath and that just seemed the natural rhythm of National Hunt life in Ireland.

Exception

The exception came in the 2000/'01 season when it was decided the trainers' title ought to be judged on the basis of prize-money won, as distinct from number of winners. That sent the prize to Mullins's yard, but it proved a short-lived revolution, Meade reclaiming the prize with almost nonchalant ease one year later.

And the season after? Mullins did not even make the top five.

Yesterday, Meade joked that he had been close to throwing up before the big race, watching Road To Respect go down to the gloomy start. He has saddled five Festival winners stretching over a stretch of 17 years while Martin can lay claim to six in 12.

Those figures seem tame now when set against Mullins's stockpiling of a record 61 in 23 years or Elliott's astonishingly fast 22 in eight. But that is the way of the world now. Paul Nolan, a Cheltenham winner in 2005 and '11, also brought just a single runner to this Festival, Discorama finishing second in yesterday's Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle.

Martin's new reality is one he knows others, too, must now accept.

He was delighted with Anibale Fly's run, chasing home the two outstanding English front-runners, Native River and Might Bite, up a gelatinous hill that - for the horses - must have felt like running on a pile of cushions.

The horse had run beautifully to win the Paddy Power Chase at Christmas, only to then fall in the Irish Gold Cup. That fall sucked a lot of optimism from the connections, so this felt gently redemptive.

"A lovely run, we're all delighted with him," said Martin. "He ran a lovely race at Christmas and we thought we'd have plenty of fun with him and unfortunately he was a bit disappointing the last day. But, look, he bounced back today and ran a blinder.

"Any day you're third in the Gold Cup is a good run!"

Had he dared to wonder if Barry Geraghty might have insinuated his mount closer to the race-long front-running gallop of Native River and Might Bite?

"Ah, I don't think so," he said evenly. "When Barry went to try and get a little bit closer coming down the hill, he just made a little bit of a mistake three out. No, I'd have no complaints that way, I'd be very happy. The Gold Cup is a very hard race to win. We had every chance, we were close enough there climbing the hill, with the gallop they went, to trouble them if good enough.

"Just two very good horses."

In truth, it had looked a two-horse race from start to finish, everybody else just forming a repertory company. For much of the race, Mullins's veteran, Djakadam, led the chase without ever quite conveying a sense that he might be a live contender.

And that small aberration three from home then probably put paid to Anibale Fly's chances of a fairytale.

For Martin, the consolation came in a walk to the Festival enclosure with the one and only chance he'd had. "Oh we're just low on horses," he shrugged. "We've an awful lot more little Flat horses for the summer, but we've been very quiet there for the last few years unfortunately. Nice to have a few but we just haven't the ammunition we had."

Someone asked gently if it had become increasingly "hard to get the good ones?"

"But sure that's it," he agreed. "It's tied up fairly good but sure look we're here for a while. Hopefully we'll be back a bit stronger next year and the year after. It's nice to have them here and, touch wood, he didn't let us down anyway."

Had it meant anything to saddle the first Irish horse past the post?

"Ah Jaysus..." he smiled incredulously, "just grand to have a horse here good enough to run, that's all. So, no. Lovely to have a good one!"

The final standings in the leading owner award told the starkest story. Gigginstown finished top with seven winners (six of them trained by Elliott), JP McManus coming in a distant second with two.

It is estimated that Gigginstown now has in excess of 100 horses in Elliott's stables and it looks as if the union will only get stronger. All week, Michael O'Leary sang the praises of the 40-year-old Meath man who famously saddled Silver Birch to a Grand National victory within a year of taking out his trainer's licence.

Lauded

After winning Thursday's Ryanair on Balko Des Flos, Davy Russell lauded the "party atmosphere" in Elliott's yard, an energy that - presumably - won't be diminishing any time soon.

After the win of Farclas in yesterday's opener, Elliott remarked "Coming here you're thinking one or two would be great, but seven winners now... I can't believe it." By day's end, he'd recorded a 119/1 double with Blow By Blow's win in the Martin Pipe securing him the Irish Independent Leading Trainer award for the second consecutive year.

And, with the financial muscle of Gigginstown behind him, there's no reason to believe that Elliott could not remain a major player on this stage for another two or more decades, especially considering a stalwart of the game like Nicky Henderson is in his late 60s and another, Jessica Harrington, her early 70s.

O'Leary alluded yesterday to the maverick spirit that has carried Elliott to this altitude, remarking: "It is the most remarkable story in the training ranks in either Ireland or England. He has come from nowhere. He drove his own van; he made his name by bringing bad horses over to Ayr to win races.

"He has come from nowhere in a remarkably short period of time."

Just eight short years ago, Elliott was still renting yards, still struggling to win races of any status in Ireland. Davy Condon, his assistant trainer now, admitted recently: "It's mad altogether, but one of the reasons I was so keen to come back and work with him is that it's a lovely place to work.

"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. 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."

Elliott has in the past suggested he was "very unlucky to be born in the same era as Willie Mullins, probably the greatest trainer we've ever seen." But there's a more compelling argument to be made that the real misfortune has befallen the yards now left in the shadow of these two genius trainers who, in competition, are tossing aside the presumed boundaries of the past.

Both could, quite probably, draw a song from a dyspeptic goat.

But given access to some of the racing world's most thrilling thoroughbreds, they look unstoppable. And this story is set to run and run.

Irish Independent

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