'General' reaches top gear to break Elliott's National duck
With 17 runners between them as they engaged in a gripping trainers' championship battle, it was written in the stars that Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins would fight out the finish of the BoyleSports Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse yesterday.
Only eight finished - all 30 runners made it home in one piece - but you could have thrown a blanket over the first five with Elliott's General Priniciple (20/1) finding most in a head-bopper as JJ Slevin repelled the challenge of Danny Mullins on Isleofhopendreams (16/1) to secure a first win for the Meath trainer in Ireland's richest jumps race.
Elliott watched the race at the last fence and was walking back towards the winners' enclosure with his heart in his mouth when the result of the photo finish bellowed No 18 over the tannoy. A fist pump only scratched the surface of showing his delight at finally landing the big one.
"I'm kind of revved up about it. I can't believe it actually. I was actually watching Folsom Blue coming up the home straight and I didn't know what I was cheering for at the last until I copped the other lad in the red cap after the last," a jubilant Elliott said.
"He's been very disappointing all year and I couldn't get a tune out of him at all. I'm not going to tell you a lie, he wasn't one of our leading fancies in the race and it's unbelievable.
"Eddie (O'Leary) was telling me the other day that there's no point in running him.
"He reckoned he wouldn't stay but I just wanted to run everything we had in the race and thankfully he won and it's great.
"Fairyhouse is one of my local courses. My mother and father were here today and my sister so it's brilliant. We've had a rough enough week hitting the crossbar with a good few and to win this is just brilliant. We'll definitely enjoy it."
When asked if the winner was finished for the season, the Meath trainer's response showed that General Principle will never be forgotten regardless of what he does in the remainder of his career.
"If he's finished for the rest of his life it doesn't matter, he's done us proud, he's won the National."
Having saddled 13 in the race, it's no wonder that Slevin's mount was a bit of an afterthought but the nine-year-old etched his place in history to land the €270,000 prize and become Gigginstown House Stud's fourth winner in the race.
For Wexford rider Slevin, it was an "unbelievable feeling" but the 25-year-old has a habit of delivering special success having steered Tower Bridge to victory at the Dublin Racing Festival to secure a first Grade One winner for his cousin Joseph O'Brien.
Slevin knew his mount was travelling well but only felt he could win when he hit the finish line and after only joining the professional ranks 18 months ago, it was a dream come true.
"I never went for him and saved a bit the whole way, kept the bit in his mouth, kept popping and kept saving.
"That's the main thing in that kind of ground and over that trip. I never really went for him until we landed at the back of the last. He really tried for me," Slevin said.
"As a young lad you dream of riding in these races and to win it hasn't really sunk in yet. I owe Gordon a lot. He's a great man and I owe him an awful lot."
It was a gripping contest full of its usual drama with favourite Pairofbrowneyes (13/2) falling at the fifth, the well-backed Squouateur (10/1) was also brought down at the same fence while the ground didn't favour Pat Kelly's Mall Dini (8/1), which was pulled up with five to jump.
Elliott's Folsom Blue (11/1) - hampered at the last by the tiring Bellshill (12/1), which veered left and barely got over the final fence before rallying under pressure - was later awarded fourth place behind Edward Cawley's Forever Gold (20/1), which ran a huge race in the hands of Adam Short, with the Mullins runner relegated to fifth.
That €10,000 swing in prize money was another feather in the cap of the 40-year-old on a day when the winner's cheque greatly increased his chance of securing his maiden trainers' crown - he has hardened to 1/3 favourite with Mullins at 9/4.
There was no happier man than Elliott among the 10,722 in attendance at the Meath track but his humility once again shone to the fore as he ended the day with 201 winners for the season so far, as his remarkable achievement was recognised.
Presented with a special momento by renowned cartoonist Darren Bird - which showed him knocking the 200-winner mark to the ground - Elliott accepted the token, saying: "that's made my day" as yet another milestone was added to his illustrious training CV. No rain could dampen his parade.
"I'd actually forgotten about it until Eddie (O'Leary) rang me.
"To train 200 winners in a season is incredible, it's a credit to all the owners and the staff that I have, I'm very, very lucky," he said.