Elliott opts for France with Bayan
Bayan will tackle a €135,000 Grade Three hurdle at Auteuil on Sunday as Gordon Elliott swerves the Cheltenham Festival with his Ladbroke Hurdle hero ahead of a possible tilt at the Grade One Aintree Hurdle.
Successful in five of his 11 hurdle starts, Bayan was third in last year's Coral Cup and second in the Galway Hurdle before gaining a deserved lucrative triumph when digging deep to land the £84,400 winner's prize at Ascot before Christmas.
That famous triumph was intensely scrutinised for all the wrong reasons when the jockeys on the first two home received whip bans, with Davy Condon handed a 15-day suspension and a £3,150 fine for his brilliant effort on the winner, just days after returning from a serious back injury.
Bayan hasn't run since, and a nine-pound hike that left him 17lbs higher than when third in the 2014 Coral Cup prompted Elliott to look elsewhere.
"Bayan left last night and is running in France on Sunday," the excellent Co Meath handler said. "There are 10 left in the race altogether. It is a two-and-a-quarter-mile Grade Three and the prize money is good with around €60,000 to the winner, so we felt it was worth trying something different with him. Cheltenham is very competitive and he has plenty weight (11st 6lb), so we said we'd try this. If he got on well, he could be suited by something like the Aintree Hurdle, but we'll get Sunday out of the way first."
Condon, who rode the third of Elliott's four Cheltenham Festival winners when steering Flaxen Flare to victory in the Fred Winter Hurdle in 2013, will fly out on Sunday morning to partner Bayan in the Prix Juigne.
Elliott's team for the four-day Prestbury Park gala that gets under way in 11 days is headed by Don Cossack, the 4/1 favourite for the Ryanair Chase.
For a first time, his Cotswold travelling contingent - many of which will sport either of the ubiquitous Gigginstown House Stud or JP McManus silks - will stretch to double figures.
Elliott, second to Willie Mullins in the trainers' championship with €1.1m in prize money, feels that it is his strongest yet. "I'd say it definitely is," he responds when the suggestion is put to him. "I've got 15 to run, and I'm happy enough with them all. Don Cossack is in good form. Obviously it would be great to see him winning.
"He is well, so hopefully everything goes okay for him. He seems to be finishing his races a lot better this year so we are looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to Clarcam in the Arkle as well. If all goes right, I think he can be second to Un De Sceaux, which would be a great result. No More Heroes will go for the Albert Bartlett. He scoped dirty - four out of five - after getting beaten at Leopardstown last month, but at the same time he was only beaten five or six lengths; he wasn't beaten 20 lengths, you know.
"There could be real improvement in him. We have an exciting bunch going over so I am really looking forward to it, and I'll send two to Stratford on the Monday as well. Luddsdenene will run in a handicap hurdle there and I have a first-time-out bumper horse whose Australian owner is coming over for Cheltenham, so hopefully we will have a bit of luck there."
With 78 domestic winners to his name already during a fantastic campaign, Elliott has long bypassed his previous best of 62. When you factor in his cross-channel tally, his haul stands at 107, and a landmark first century at home is still a possibility with just over two months of the season remaining.
Elliott's frequent ally and fellow Co Meath native Jason Maguire will miss Cheltenham after losing his appeal against a 14-day ban for schooling in public, while Mark Walsh also faces a spell on the sidelines after a fall in Thurles yesterday. JP McManus' regular rider in Ireland, Walsh had X-rays at Blanchardstown Hospital last night, after which it was reported that he's to face a six-week lay-off with a broken arm.
This is an especially cruel blow for Walsh, whose fine form sees him sit nine clear of Paul Townend at the top of the jockeys' table. Such an absence will jeopardise his title aspirations.
Barry Connell, meanwhile, has confirmed that he is still "actively considering" supplementing his Hennessy Gold cup runner-up Foxrock for the Gold Cup. Connell has until March 7 to pay the £27,500 fee to add his improving Ted Walsh-trained seven-year-old to the field, and he said they won't "make the final call until we have to".