IT’S a gloomy, horizon-less sky heading on the 75-minute drive to Longwood on Monday morning. On arrival at Cullentra for a HRI media morning to launch the build up to the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, a range of media, owners and sponsors have assembled as Gordon Elliott works 20 of his likely team for the big four days which feature seven Grade 1s.
There’s no time for gloom or slow starts here. Elliott is on hand after a busy afternoon at Navan on Sunday, and back from a schooling session over fences in Navan again at 8am that morning.
Little wonder he has no time for suggestions not to put the clocks back an hour for the winter – for racing yards it would mean a further hour working in the dark in these months. The Navan schooling wouldn’t be an option.
There’s changes since we were last here. In the gate, down the yard, round the corner, the first box? Tiger is gone. Galvin is now promoted to front man.
The big-race winning name plates to the right of his door are a reminder for the big shoes the little horse has left to be filled. Five Cheltenham wins and two Grand Nationals. Galvin offers his two to date - a win at the Festival and a Grade 1 success.
The chosen 20 head to the gallops. Asked later how many he has in training, Elliott offers, “a couple of hundred”. When pushed that that is a bit vague he replies “but like Mick Easterby said: I’ll know if one is missing!”
Samcro is one missing, relegated to the back boxes now but when recognised, there’s still a few cameras and selfies for him to pose.
This is no country for old men, nor horses. Of the 20 workers, Sire Du Berlais is the oldest at 10. Mighty Potter is only five and has an impressive chasing debut behind him.
Ladies might like to adopt Queens Brook as their poster girl. Even galloping a brisk up-hill six furlongs isn’t enough. “Queens Brook has to swim every evening, she puts on weight just looking at food,” her trainer tells us. Join our club!
Top riders Jack Kennedy and Denis O’Regan are backed up by young guns Jordan Gainford and Sam Ewing, while US champion rider Parker Hendricks is on a two-month riding holiday. Cossie McGivern is 53 going 23. Josh Williamson is learning a lot in his transition year, from up the gallops on Sire De Berlais’ back.
Puppy Power is among the onlookers. Are you not working for Henry de Bromhead now? Is this a spying mission? The two go back a long way to Silver Birch’s Grand National.
Elliott said on his current riding arrangements: “Jack is kind of stepping into the first jockey role. There is no official first jockey, but Davy is not going to be around forever and with these young horses coming along, I need a bit of consistency, and Jack getting to know the young horses going forward.”
“When Jack sees a jump he is just different, a bit special. He has a great pair of hands, and horses jump great for him.
The horses are on the easier six-and-a-half-furlong Wexford sand and fibre gallop this morning. “Stephen on the tractor is probably the most important man in the place. If your gallop isn’t right, you are going to have injuries. He’s on the tractor all day, every day. We work about 45 in lots each morning.
“We have the best racing here because we have to take each other on every day,
“I’m blessed to have brilliant staff, a lot of very good horses and some brilliant owners. I’m very very lucky,” confessing later, “If I had enough staff, I’d train 1,000 because I love doing it.” The current staff, full and part-time, comes to around 100. “Staff is our biggest headache. We are in danger of working our staff too hard. I give all my staff a half day on Monday, so we rotate who comes back and feeds in the evening,” Elliott revealed, expressing concerns on the recruitment of good staff.
If being in the centre of these Grade 1 contenders gets the blood flowing for trainer and press, Leopardstown’s CEO Tim Husbands is no less psyched up to be here a few weeks ahead of the big days. “We get as big a buzz as any owners or trainers, it’s three years since we had a full-throttle Christmas Festival.”
Previously boss of the Titanic experience in Belfast, he is asked what stood out for him when moving to the new role in racing. “The closeness of the racing community and all the different parts, from owners, trainers and racegoers,” he says.
Irish racetracks have seen good attendance figures in recent months, what is Leopardstown’s appeal? “It’s an integrated experience, it feels really comfortable, everyone has their place to go and meet up. We have spent almost €20 million on the upgrading over the last years,” Husbands said.
And of course there’ll be no ducking and diving and avoiding here as Willie Mullins pitches up against the Elliott stars.
“We have the best racing here because we have to take each other on every day,” Elliott asserted. “We have the best owners, the best horses, the best trainers, so there’s no hiding place in Ireland. I’m unfortunate to be around in the same era as Willie, we’ll keep him honest anyway.”
“Eleven years ago in May we bought this place as just a green field. We are learning all the time.
“Like a kid when he goes to a toy shop, every time I go to a yard and I see something new or see something someone else has, I want it.
“I’ve put everything I had into the yard, and I just want to make it better. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”