THE perennial challenger to Willie Mullins faced an altogether different test in the spring when that picture on social media turned his world upside down.
In the space of just a few days Elliott went from having one of the strongest Cheltenham teams ever assembled to fighting for his licence which was suspended for six months following an IHRB hearing.
Most owners stood by the trainer with the notable exception of Cheveley Park who removed their entire string with the trainer, which included the likes of Envoi Allen, Sir Gerhard and Quilixios.
With Elliott on the sidelines, the reins at Cullentra passed over to Sneezy Foster who oversaw a trio of Cheltenham wins for the yard with Black Tears somehow nailing Concertista on the line in the Mares’ Hurdle before Mount Ida pulled off an incredible success in the Kim Muir having looked an utterly forlorn hope after a few fences.
Unquestionably though pride of place in the Cullentra treble was Tiger Roll who somehow bounced back from what appeared to be a downward spiral to run riot in the Cross Country Chase. It was almost as if National Hunt racing’s most charismatic figure knew that the embattled Elliott needed a lift more than he had ever done before.
Even so Cheltenham would have made for tough viewing for the trainer as Sir Gerhard, Quilixios and Galvin all won for other yards while Tiger Roll’s extraordinary comeback took place without him.
As he described it himself, his ‘moment of madness’ cost him dearly and left him without several of the brightest talents that he had unearthed. At the time he vowed to build back better and his September comeback took place against a backdrop that seemed far less fraught or charged than what took place last March when frontier justice seemed the order of the day.
Since his comeback the signs for the Elliott yard have been heartening and things recently moved on to a new level at Navan earlier this month when he sent out an amazing seven winners on an eight-race card.
LATTERLY the National Hunt campaign has revolved around several superpowers and it perhaps has lost the egalitarian feel that once prevailed but it was heartening to see that the likes of the Cheltenham Festival didn’t just revolve around the three biggest jumping yards in the country.
Gavin Cromwell’s profile and influence has been growing for a number of seasons and a double at the meeting was further evidence of his arrival among the National Hunt elite. Firstly, Flooring Porter, whose relentless progress all season was quite something to behold, made every yard of the running in the Stayers’ Hurdle under Danny Mullins.
The following afternoon it was the turn of Vanillier in the Albert Bartlett where the grey provided yet further evidence that the Dorans Pride Novice Hurdle at Limerick over Christmas is the pre-eminent trial for this race.
Noel Meade got back amongst the Prestbury Park winners when Jeff Kidder stormed home to land the Fred Winter and his 80/1 starting price made him the longest-priced Cheltenham Festival winner since Norton’s Coin struck in the 1990 Gold Cup.
Ian Ferguson added to his haul at the meeting when Galvin, who was briefly transferred from Gordon Elliott, took the National Hunt Chase while Paul Nolan ended a lengthy spell without a winner at the Festival when Mrs Milner bagged the Pertemps under Bryan Cooper.
When Belfast Banter met with an odds-on defeat in a maiden at Killarney the previous August a Cheltenham and Aintree double probably wasn’t foremost in the thoughts of Peter Fahey or his jockey Kevin Sexton. However, that is what came to pass with the six-year-old who sprang a 33/1 surprise in the County Hurdle before going to follow up at Grade 1 level at Aintree.
Elsewhere, Emmet Mullins’ outstanding campaigning of The Shunter took in the valuable Morebattle Hurdle at Kelso before a £100,000 bonus-triggering Paddy Power Festival Plate glory awaited at Cheltenham a couple of weeks later.
On the greatest stage of all there was also time for a fairytale success as Heaven Help Us, a homebred of trainer Paul Hennessy’s and one of just three horses under the care of the famed greyhound trainer, made all the running under Richie Condon to claim the Coral Cup.
Meanwhile, a monster surprise was lying in wait in Irish jump racing’s richest prize at Fairyhouse the following month when Freewheelin Dylan sprang a 150/1 shock under Ricky Doyle for local trainer Dermot McLoughlin. This was a first ride in the race for Doyle who pulled off a front-running masterpiece on the rank outsider, while the trainer was emulating his father, Paddy, who rode the winner of the race back in 1962.
of the year
Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore take this accolade hands down for their respective exploits in the spring.
Tiger Roll looked down and out prior to Cheltenham but somehow the dual Grand National winner resurrected himself to land an amazing fifth win at the Festival.
Something to look forward to
A Plus Tard, Honeysuckle and Energumene – three singular talents with the capacity to dominate their divisions for some time to come.