Thursday 18 July 2019

Champion sets sights on the pretender in trainers' finale

Gordon Elliott with General Principle after the horse edged out the Willie Mullins-trained Isleofhopendreams in the Irish Grand National – he will be hoping to get the better of Mullins again at Punchestown this week. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Gordon Elliott with General Principle after the horse edged out the Willie Mullins-trained Isleofhopendreams in the Irish Grand National – he will be hoping to get the better of Mullins again at Punchestown this week. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

Twelve months later and it's the same two heavyweight trainers dominating the narrative ahead of this year's Punchestown Festival.

Anyone who thought Gordon Elliott's remarkable 2016/17 season couldn't be replicated was horribly wrong and the Meath trainer has taken all before him to hold an even bigger advantage over Willie Mullins - approximately €520,000 - heading into five days of racing heaven.

Much like Kilkenny winning All-Ireland hurling titles or Roger Federer taking tennis Grand Slams, the success of Mullins and Elliott can sometimes be taken for granted such is the sheer dominance which they have held in recent seasons, but what they are doing is nothing short of extraordinary.

Fifteen Cheltenham Festival winners between them last month signified how they have turned the racing game on its head on these shores. They have raised the standards, for themselves and for everyone else.

And while it might not be fun to watch the same faces parade in the winners' enclosure after most major contests, you can only but admire what they have done, and continue to do.


Trainer Willie Mullins. Photo: Racing Post
Trainer Willie Mullins. Photo: Racing Post

With two vastly different backgrounds, few would have envisaged the pair to dominate as they are. Mullins has the finest racing bloodlines, sired by legendary trainer Paddy, who gave him all the expertise needed to succeed as a jockey and in the training ranks.

Elliott, on the other hand, has no racing lineage with his father coming from a panel-beating background and his mother a housewife but it hasn't stopped him cementing his place among the pantheon of greats at the relatively young training age of 40.

Perhaps it's Elliott's groundings from his days with Martin Pipe that have helped him mirror his old master with few races on the National Hunt calendar being omitted in his relentless drive for winners and prize money.

For someone who started out taking horses to far-flung UK courses like Ayr, Perth, Sedgefield and Stratford in search of winners, his approach hasn't changed and it doesn't matter whether it's Kilbeggan, Sligo or Downpatrick, Elliott will be represented.

This approach means Elliott has had nearly 400 more runners so far this season compared to Mullins (1075 against 680) but the 11-time champion trainer (right) has been ultra efficient with just 12 winners less than his counterpart (194 winners to Elliott's 206).

That will all change this week, however, as the Closutton maestro - first crowned champion in 2000/01 and reigning champion since 2007/08 - throws everything but the kitchen sink at the Kildare track. His vice-like grip of the trainers' crown will not be relinquished easily.

"The championship is all to play for, I think," Mullins says. "My good ones have to go in, Gordon's good ones have to go in. It's going to be an exciting week. Everything that can raise a gallop will be there. If we had a race for the stable cat I'm sure that would be up there, too!"

The 61-year-old will stop at no lengths to hold on to a title he cherishes and will rely on a star-studded team led by the likes of Penhill, Laurina, Getabird and Footpad. Mullins is usually keen to split his aces, but admits needs must this week.

That sets up the tantalising prospect of big guns like Douvan, Min and Un De Sceaux - which clash in today's featured Boylesports Champion Chase - all going under starters' orders against one another.

"We're lucky enough that we have horses to run in those big races and they will have to run against each other. There isn't anywhere to hide. This is it," he says.

Photo-finishes have been unkind to Mullins in the past month after being chinned by Elliott in the Irish and English Nationals but he hopes the tide may turn this week in a battle which will go right down to the wire.

"After being beaten in two photo-finishes to two Nationals, maybe Lady Luck owes me a bit back!" Mullins muses.

General Principle's Irish National win has helped Elliott into an even bigger lead than he held this time 12 months ago but past experience has taught him that the race is far from over.

Describing his eventual defeat in last year's title race as "heartbreaking" after holding a sizeable lead heading into Punchestown, the Cullentra handler makes no bones about the fact that becoming champion trainer would supersede anything he has done in his remarkable training career to date.

"We've had an unbelievable season and to train 200 winners was fantastic and to win both Grand Nationals was incredible, but if I could swap every single one of those to be champion trainer I would," Elliott says matter-of-factly.

"Anything that can breathe will be there this week! All joking aside, we'll do our best and try and bring as many as we can. I'm happier being in front than behind. If I was behind I'd have no chance. I have a small chance being in front.

"It'll be a long, nervous week. I know the ammunition Willie has and he's going to be chasing me hard. Seconds, thirds, fourths and fifths will all count. It's good for the public and I'm sure if I win it Willie will be able to shake my hand and if he wins it I'll be the first one to shake his."

As regards quality this week, there's no comparison as Samcro and Apple's Jade aside, Mullins holds all the aces for the week's biggest Grade One prizes and has been shortened to even money in some places (Elliott is available at 8/11) before the action even kicks off.

If history is anything to go by, there's method to the odds compiler's madness as Mullins collected €937,045 at the Kildare track last year over a fabulous five days, which astonishingly made up one fifth of his total winnings for the entire season. In less than a week!

That's €603,045 more than Elliott - who had five winners in his best Punchestown Festival yet - which helped him keep the trainers' title in Closutton by just under €200,000.

As Kilkenny hurling boss Brian Cody has wisely said on numerous occasions, the only time the scoreline matters is at the end and Mullins operates on the same principle with 90 festival winners (to Elliott's 14) highlighting his love for end-of-season fare.

Much like all great sportsmen, he comes into his own when the finishing line is in sight.

Mullins is unlikely to equal his record tally of 16 wins from three years ago but despite trailing handsomely he still looks in pole position to prevail and can pull off another minor miracle.

The end-of-season feel may make it seem like the 12th and final round of an epic title bout between two prize fighters but in reality, it's only heading into the eighth with five huge rounds set to come and twists and turns awaiting around every hurdle and fence.

They don't call it Peerless Punchestown for nothing, and this epic clash will live up to all the hype.

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