Wednesday 17 January 2018

Irish National key to trainers' title

Purse of €500,000 critical if Elliott is to hold off Mullins, bidding for tenth title in a row

What is admirable about the O’Leary operation is how honestly his horses are campaigned. Photo: Sportsfile
What is admirable about the O’Leary operation is how honestly his horses are campaigned. Photo: Sportsfile

Johnny Ward

Everything we knew or thought we knew in Irish racing changed in late September when Willie Mullins and Gigginstown, out of the blue, parted ways.

Few had bothered with the numbers but it emerged that five dozen horses were housed in Closutton which were owned by Michael O'Leary. In relative terms, it was a split minus acrimony, and O'Leary has gone on record to say that he may have horses with the champion trainer again.

Mullins said that the severing of the axis was down to costs. For the first time in the guts of a decade, he raised the price of his training fees and it is said that O'Leary objected.

These are two seriously impressive individuals and it must have involved deep soul-searching on both of their parts to do what they did. Then Gigginstown had to decide what to do with their 60 steeds and Michael and Eddie O'Leary split them between five trainers.

Mouse Morris, Noel Meade, Henry De Bromhead and Joseph O'Brien were called and asked if they would be happy to take in some new stock. However, the main beneficiary would be Gordon Elliott, coming in the year that the trainer provided O'Leary with his second Gold Cup winner in Don Cossack.

In some respects, it is hard to reconcile the O'Leary who opened up a shop on Christmas Eve and trebled the price of batteries with a guy who would invest colossal money in bloodstock. Whatever it is, the bug bit him and, in conjunction with his brother Eddie, he has established himself as the next best thing to JP McManus.

In Elliott, who worked his way to the top from scratch, O'Leary probably saw an element of himself. The son of a mechanic, he was entitled to nothing in a tough sport and won the Aintree Grand National before he had even enjoyed a single winner in Ireland.

Elliott quickly built an impressive team around him and everyone who knows the operation will talk about the calibre of men he has as loyal parts of the team. And while he is utterly brilliant to deal with as a journalist, there is an element of mischief in how he has discussed his prospects of a first trainers' title this season.

Mullins entered the campaign on the back of nine successive trainers' titles and nobody even countenanced the notion that somebody could challenge him. Between Gigginstown, Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie and JP McManus, he had the backers that everyone would want in the game, even though the story of Elliott has been one of continued progression.

Elliott and Mullins are extremely competitive characters and when Elliott says that he has "absolutely no chance" of winning the title at a time when the bookmakers cannot split him and Mullins in the betting few, if any, believe him.

He is as driven as they come and he is worried about talking too much when it comes to something he scarcely believed might be achievable a few months ago. Elliott wants to be the champion trainer and he does not shy away from that ambition but everything is hinging on the patronage of Gigginstown.

He has the odd runner for McManus and others but there is one owner and then there is the rest. And, in the Ryanair boss, he has found somebody who expects success and is not one for excuses.

What is especially admirable about the O'Leary operation is how honestly his horses are campaigned. He can be ruthless with trainers, ending his connection with both Sandra Hughes and Tony Martin last season on the basis of what he deemed to be disappointing results, but there is no messing about with his runners.

Every runner sporting the famous maroon and white colours of Gigginstown House Stud gives everything that he or she has. Layers and backers know what to expect.

And this is where it gets a little strange. Given that the O'Learys want Gold Cup winners and have no intrinsic interest in getting their horses in a position where they are a step ahead of the handicapper, the operation's record in top-grade handicaps this season has been staggering.

Elliott won the first seven handicap chases this season worth six figures and Gigginstown owned six of them. They invest so much in horses they believe may turn out to be top-class chasers, many of course are not quite of that ability but fit nicely into the bracket of winning an Irish National or a Troytown.

With the Irish Gold Cup meeting ahead next Sunday, there are still 18 Grade One races to debate in Ireland this season. However, when Mullins ruled Annie Power out of Cheltenham and Faugheen was taken out of the Irish Champion Hurdle last Sunday, bookmakers were compelled to take action and Elliott was made favourite for the title.

With no Annie Power, Faugheen having not run in over a year and Vroum Vroum Mag making extremely hard work of winning at Doncaster, the champion trainer's aces may not deliver what we have expected of them in the past. Elliott does not have too many stars just yet, especially with Don Cossack retired and No More Heroes meeting his end last year, but that will come.

While it is basically a shoot-out between the pair, it would be remiss not to mention the season that Henry De Bromhead has had. When he lost the patronage of Alan Potts, virtually nobody would have expected the Co Waterford trainer to have by far his best season on record.

The effort that De Bromhead makes in schooling his horses means that they tend to do exactly what they are designed to do and they enjoy it too.

One day, he may challenge for the title. At the moment, however, jumps fans are captivated by the prospect of Elliott leading Mullins into Punchestown, when there are a dozen Grade One races and the pretender will appreciate that the holder will throw everything at it.

What is likely to be key to the outcome is the BoyleSports Irish Grand National on Easter Monday at Fairyhouse. The purse has been upgraded to a staggering half a million this year and, given that Elliott's record in handicap chases is far better than Mullins', there is little doubt that this old race will be pivotal to the outcome.

Elliott, too, will be conscious of small gains. Those many modest beasts who he sends to Perth and such places may be kept at home instead: he has a title to win. And the beautiful thing about it all is that it is really difficult to call.

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