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Johnny Ward: Gordon Elliott - a live threat to Willie Mullins' empire - commands utter loyalty


Gordon Elliott in his yard at Longwood Co Meath. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Gordon Elliott in his yard at Longwood Co Meath. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Gordon Elliott in his yard at Longwood Co Meath. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Gavin Cromwell was showing me around his yard one day and we reached the gallops. I enquired as to what type of gallop he was using and he replied something to the effect: "It's the same as what Gordon Elliott uses - I more or less copy him."

No surprise, so, that Cromwell has become such a success too. He and Elliott, 38, have been friends for many years and his respect for his fellow Co Meath man is telling, especially notable considering Elliott is a self-confessed fan of 'Home And Away'.

What has driven him to such incredible heights in what seems like no time at all? Few could have predicted it and even the man himself must at times struggle to grasp that he would be a Gold Cup winner with Don Cossack and running away with the trainers' title in Ireland in the same year - that of 2016, which featured an historic Navan six-timer the weekend before last.

Then again this is the same man who at the age of 29, having not enjoyed a single winner in his homeland, captured the Aintree Grand National with Silver Birch, a horse which had left one Paul Nicholls and not seen success in the guts of two-and-a-half years.


Gordon Elliott with Silver Birch after the horse had won the 2007 Grand National. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Gordon Elliott with Silver Birch after the horse had won the 2007 Grand National. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Gordon Elliott with Silver Birch after the horse had won the 2007 Grand National. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Racing can seem no less elite than that of peerage. To succeed, you need to come from within - but nobody told Gordon Elliott. His father was a mechanic, his mother a housewife.

As a teenager, he started working summers with Tony Martin, little knowing that one day Gigginstown would give him the bulk of their horses and deem Martin, something of a genius, surplus to requirements.


Though they have a common past in having worked for Martin Pipe, it is the days with the other Martin which former rider Tom Malone believes were most significant in shaping the man Elliott has become.

"He's gone to two of the cleverest trainers, something clicked in his head and it worked for him," Malone, who buys horses for Elliott, says. "Pipe would have been brilliant but Tony was more of a learning curve. You don't learn much at Pipe's: they do not outwardly tell you what they are doing. They see it as competition."

As Elliott's website says, "despite enjoying much success in the saddle, training was always Gordon's long-term aim. In the latter years of his riding career he began training a few point-to-pointers, in 2006 he took out his trainers' licence and in 2007 won the Grand National. Simple!"

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If only it were so. Daft trainers can fluke wins in big races and, as far as Malone was concerned, there was not much about Elliott which gave any indication of what was to follow subsequently.

"To say that I didn't expect him to be the global star he has become is an understatement. He's a quiet fellow, really. If you asked me eight years ago, I'd have said, 'He'll do grand, his ould business brain wouldn't be the best', and he would tell you himself he might have neglected that side of it in the past, but he has collared that too.

"Unbeknownst to himself, his selection of staff was probably the biggest thing. The big one was head lad Simon McGonagle, then his brother Joey Elliott, then Shane McCann - they call Shane the judge, and for good reason.

"You now have six or eight lads capable of being good solid jockeys, riding work for him every day - that is priceless. So many trainers out there have neither the horses nor the staff."

Perhaps the image that lingers most from Navan was not the easiest for the photographers. After banging in his sixth winner, Elliott arranged that all of his stable staff available would get into a parade-ring snap that many will cherish forever. You see them at the races, wearing their pride to be part of it all. One of them, Katie Young, simply states that the boss is "very driven with a will to win".

The figures are staggering. In the 2013/2014 season, he had 56 winners in Ireland. In this campaign, just beyond halfway, he's enjoyed 118, including a Grade One yesterday with the former Mullins inmate, Apple's Jade.

His strike-rate would not be a patch on Mullins' but even the Navan sextet - from 27 declarations - amounted to a day when he was certain to have the guts of 20 losers.

Owners flock to him. I did once and the horse was useless but there was never a suggestion a cent would be spent in excess - unless at the bar, where he is the best of company with an owner. What has been critical, of course, is the patronage of Gigginstown.

Michael and Eddie O'Leary have whittled down their list of trainers to a handful, with Elliott having most of the cream. Eddie, as ever, is succinct: "He's a very good trainer, that's it really."

Malone recalls being at Newmarket one day surveying horses. "A trainer asked him, 'Now Gordon, what would you do differently?' Gordon replied: 'I'd gallop them more.'

"He says, 'What do you mean? We gallop them x, y and z.' Gordon replied: 'Well it's not enough: they're fat.'

"I wonder did that trainer go away and think he was right," adds Malone. "That's a Flat trainer thing, a Newmarket thing; their heads are up their holes and they live in their own world. The Arabs send them 50 yearlings a year and they don't need to work for it.


"That's the big thing with Gordon: he started from nothing and had to work for everything. Brilliant trainers' sons rarely achieve what they achieved as they never had to work for it."

Cromwell adds: "His brain never stops - the next opportunity, the next owner, the next horse. He is always thinking outside the box, he gathers people around him that are part of his success; everyone has a part to play whether they know it not."

At Navan, Elliott ensured that they knew very well. Earlier this year, he sacked Kevin Sexton, who subsequently was revealed as having failed a drugs test at Galway in an unrelated matter.

Sexton needed a friend. The following day his old ally rang him, telling him he'd welcome him back if he sorted himself out.

Over the years, his levels of expectation changed dramatically but that grounded, humble bloke Elliott was remains unchanged, despite all the success and praise that comes with it.

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