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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Gordon Elliott
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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Gordon Elliott
on 22 June 2018
Gordon Elliott reveals what keeps him driving forward every season as he chats to Daragh Ó Conchúir

If you want to be successful at anything you have to want to be in a place where you know you’re going to be uncomfortable

NOBODY would ever say that Gordon Elliott is the type to lose the run of himself but the recent good weather appears to have made the training phenom a little giddy.

It is the only way to explain the blue shorts and the pale calves beneath them, goose-bumping in protest at their exposure on a chilly morning.

“I don’t know what I was thinking” he says to assistant trainer Ian ‘Busty’ Amond, after running the rule over some of his weekend runners as they have a blow on his uphill six-furlong woodchip gallop.

He doesn’t get much wrong. Aged 40, he has trained more than 1,000 winners, 152 of those graded, 39 at the highest level, a Gold Cup with Don Cossack at the top of the tree.

Such are his exceptional feats that he has made the greatest jump trainer of them all, Willie Mullins, raise his game, as evidenced by the Closutton maestro’s record-breaking tally of 212 winners for nearly €6 million prize money required to stave off his young, persistent challenger to remain champion trainer.

The meteoric rise is driven by the desire to be number one. It is a desire that makes him the poster boy for what is possible, and not having to be part of an establishment to succeed. Ironically then, perhaps the most self-made individual in the sport is sometimes held up as symptomatic of a negative trend within it.

That he started at the bottom rung of the ladder, with the same blank canvas as most people with the racing dream and considerably less advantages than many operating within it, appears to cut little ice.

For some detractors at least, the man who showed racing is not a closed shop, is part of an elite making it so. You couldn’t make it up.

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth” he says in his kitchen. “My mother and father don’t have an acre of land. We live in a normal house. I’ve done all this myself. I’ve had a lot of owners that have been big supporters of me over the years and I’ve been lucky enough to get the horses.

CHAMPION TRAINER

“People can say this and that. I’ve worked hard to get what I’ve got. If people give out about it, well let them come up to the mark. Because at the end of the day, and I’ve said it publicly, not just in the last two years but I’ve said it for the last seven or eight years; my dream in life is to be champion trainer. If it takes me a year or 10 years to do it, it’s something I want to do.

“If you want to train you should want to be champion trainer, if you wanted to be a jockey, you should want to be champion jockey. If you’re happy to be middle of the road, tipping away, making a living, so be it.

“We all want to make money and I’ve invested a lot of money in this yard. But… it’s winners I want. I love training winners. I never had money and being a millionaire doesn’t interest me. Or having €50,000 in the bank account or a hundred (thousand). I want to be able to train winners, pay my staff, pay all the bills.

It does be a struggle at times, because we’re a big business with a lot of investment into the place. Things are getting a big easier because we’ve all our building done. But it’s winners I love.”

And he is equally as emphatic about what he sees as the imperative backing of the industry by the major owners. He has no doubt the wider racing industry would be in a far worse place without them.

“If you took Gigginstown out of it or took JP McManus out of it, what sort of mess would the game be in? Barry Connell? All these guys are investing massive. It goes the whole way down the ladder.

“From the lad breeding the foal, everyone gets money… the lad that pinhooks them, sells them as a store, the lad who pre-trains them, the lad who breaks them, the point-to-point man that buys them to sell them – everyone’s getting a few quid. If they all came out of the game, it just mightn’t be good at all.”

Elliott has learned to let the commentary flow off him but he is not insensitive to it. He was moved to slam “uninformed and malicious talk” surrounding the health of his horses after a relatively lean spell in May. Throughout it all, he worked hand-in-hand with his vets, IHRB chief veterinary officer Lynn Hillyer and the Irish Equine Centre to get to the bottom of a respiratory issue affecting some of his horses.

“If you took Gigginstown out of it or took JP McManus out of it, what sort of mess would the game be in?

He doesn’t have a big summer team anyway, but sensibly chose to keep them at home until they began sparkling again. The evidence suggests that Team Gordon are beginning to do just that, with five winners last weekend including a Downpatrick treble on Sunday.

GOING FORWARD

“What’s done is dusted. I’m a big believer in life of going forward... I hadn’t a winner for three weeks and people think the world is over. We were going through a quieter spell but we haven’t as many summer horses as we used to have. There’s no doubt a few of the horses weren’t singing but we’re happy with them now.”

In a way, he is a victim of his success but every yard gets cold periods, or has to sit and suffer as some bug gets into the place for a while. The remarkable aspect of this situation is that nobody could ever recall it happening to Elliott, because he is a winning machine.

When a man becomes the youngest victorious trainer of the Grand National (Silver Birch, 2007) before he has even saddled a winner on home turf, you know something special is unfolding. That he would produce the winner of Europe’s richest flat handicap, the Ebor, two years later with Dirar, was frankly ridiculous. Convention had no place in this narrative.

In the early days, he used imagination in a way that not many had before. The thirst for winners brought him to Scotland and it was fertile ground. Arresting got him off the mark in Perth on June 11, 2006 and returned twice more to prevail there. It wasn’t until the 2010/11 campaign that his Irish tally of triumphs outnumbered what he was totting up in Britain (62-36). Not alone could he clearly get the best out of what he had, he was outstanding for sourcing opportunities. Little wonder owners came flocking.

The quality and quantity of the string is on a different stratosphere now but the mindset is the same. Today he will have runners in Gowran Park over jumps, in the Ulster Derby at Down Royal and at Royal Ascot. He has enjoyed success at flat racing’s Cheltenham thanks to Commissioned in the Queen Alexandra Stakes two years ago, and though he was so unfancied that only travelling head girl Camilla Sharples represented connections on that occasion, Pallasator will have significantly more support today.

A six-time winner on the flat when under the tutelage of Sir Mark Prescott, Pallasator was a high-class individual, a Group 2 victor who had appeared to lose interest in racing.

Owner, Sheikh Fahad had ridden the Elliott-trained future Supreme Hurdle winner Labaik to victory in the Corinthian Challenge and been impressed. He decided to see if a jumping career might reinvigorate his charge.

It clearly did, the son of Motivator winning twice, including at Grade 2 level. There is more to come from him over obstacles but he will enjoy a summer flat campaign now that he has the appetite once more.

Just another advertisement for the Elliott way.

My dream in life is to be champion trainer.

****

HORSES weren’t on Gordon Elliott’s as a child in Summerhill. So you wonder: was it fate that it worked out the way he did? Or luck?

“It’s well known now, that my mother is a housewife, my father is a panel beater… It’s obviously a lot of luck. I was in the right place at the right time, when I started riding out a few horses. I got a pony when I was younger but look, I could be laying blocks out in the yard as easy.”

He liked horses but wasn’t thinking about training.

“At the time it was a job. I didn’t like school. I left when I was 15, I couldn’t settle. If you asked me when I was 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, was I going to be doing what I was doing now… I suppose when you start working with horses, everyone wants to be a jockey.

“You think it’s grand when you’re younger, but when you get a bit older. I started pre-training, buying and selling a few horses and it went from there. The rest is history.”

He was with Tony Martin for a decade and spent some time with Liam Browne and Gordon Richards. Once exposed to horses, did it feel natural?

“If people want to hear the right thing, you could say ‘Yeah, of course I did, I knew straight away it was what I wanted to do’ but as I said, at the start it was a job. I didn’t have to go to school. I loved working with horses but did I know I was going to be a trainer? Did I know I was going to have this? If you start saying that you’re telling lies.

Gordon (RIGHT) with Silver Birch (left) winner of the Aintree Grand National and Don Cossack (right) winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup at his open day in Longwood

“The older I got, into my early 20s, it was something then I thought about. I knew I wasn’t good enough to be a jockey number one, I was too heavy number two. So it was ‘What do you do?’ I knew I loved working with horses but I wanted to be something, do something myself, whether it be pre-training or training point-to-pointers, and luckily every road I went, it worked out.”

He is being a mite modest about his riding. He steered in the region of 200 winners in point-to-points and another 50 on the track. They included the Grade 1 Punchestown Champion Bumper for Nigel Twiston-Davies 20 years ago, where he and King’s Road staved off the challenge of teenager Ruby Walsh. He also won two amateur chases at Cheltenham’s pre-festival meetings for Martin Pipe.

Pipe is Elliott’s idol and he got an almighty kick out of winning the last two renewals of the race named in his former boss’s honour at Cheltenham, with Champagne Classic and Blow By Blow. His time at Nicholashayne was transformative. What did he pick up?

SET THE STANDARD

“Martin Pipe’s attention to detail. He left no stone unturned. I suppose the level of horses getting fit has been brought so much forward compared to what they were when he was training, but he did it, he set the standard. Everyone’s got the use of good gallops now and all the rest but Martin Pipe brought it to a new level.

“Everyone’s got a hero in life when they grow up. Whether you like him or don’t like him, he’s my hero in life. Martin Pipe. I’d always say ‘He’s the man.’”

He remains close to the Pipe family now and visits regularly now. It is something that strikes you about him. He is fiercely loyal. When Davy Condon had to retire from the saddle little over three years ago with a spinal injury, he was immediately assured of his future by Elliott, who made him one of his assistants.

He has provided crucial support to Keith Donoghue in the jockey’s battle with the scales, enticing him back to ride work initially after the pilot had given up the ghost, then dangling the carrot of racing again. No-one was happier when Donoghue gave Tiger Roll a peach to win the Cross-Country Chase at Cheltenham.

His closest allies at work are his best friends. He knows head lad Simon McMonagle more than 20 years. Amond was part of the furniture a long time too before finally joining the staff on a full-time basis in 2016. Davy Russell was a weigh tent colleague between the flags and they have been tight ever since.

The atmosphere is a happy one. Being part of a team that is thriving is important. So too is that they are well looked after. While a man with a voracious appetite for winners, Elliott concurs with the recent comments of another Meath conditioner Ger Lyons, who expressed the appreciation of racing staff for a rare Sunday off recently. He concedes that a little less racing might be more conducive to attracting and retaining staff.

“I’m never gonna complain ‘cos if there’s racing every day of the year, I’ll try have runners but there probably is too much. It’s a massive worry for staff, the hours they have to work, there is burnout. The girls that travel with the horses, it’s not an easy job.

“They’re in first thing in the morning, driving late at night, probably don’t get appreciated enough for what they do. It’s probably something that needs to be looked at. It should be structured better, a better break for trainers, jockeys, stable staff, everyone. Like I said, if there’s racing every day of the week, I’m gonna have runners but it would be nice if you could plan more of a break or a few days off.”

****

I’m not big into fashion or clothes as you can see. But anything new for training horses, I find hard to let go.”

WHAT Gordon Elliott illustrates is the importance of ambition in any success story, and of significant leaps of faith required in pursuit of its realisation. He was doing well at Capranny Stables, the yard he was renting in Trim, well established, training top-class winners. But he could never be champion there.

So in 2011 he bought the 78-acre site just outside Longwood, comprising an old farmhouse and a few cattle sheds. The rest was green field, for him to do with what he wanted. He was up to his eyes in debt but didn’t sweat.

“It wasn’t a massive gamble because I hadn’t a lot to lose. I didn’t have anything. I suppose it was a risk more than it was a gamble. I didn’t own a house before I bought this place so if it got took off me, I was back where I started. That was the way to look at it.”

Cullentra House is a stunning facility. The layout was clear in Elliott’s mind though it has only become reality over time because he didn’t have the finance to construct it all at once. He installed a sand gallop and schooling strip first.

Now there are four gallops, four schooling strips, an equine swimming pool, the utilisation of the natural stream and grass paddocks on site, numerous wash bays and of course stabling for 200 horses. It is equine utopia.

Construction continues on offices and a canteen but he is on the home stretch now. Maybe.

LOT OF PRESSURE

“We started off with 60 or 70 stables and thought that was going to be it… We haven’t sat still for the last five years but I think this is it now. We’re nearly done. It’ll be good because it’s been a lot of pressure with the building. It’s a lot of money going out over the last five years. It’ll be nice to sit back for a couple of years.”

Gordon Elliott sitting back? He grins, recognising the improbability.

“The problem with me is I’m like a child in a toy shop. When I see something I think could be better for training horses, I want it. That’s my addiction. You go to France or you go America and you see something different and think ‘That looks good.’ It’s a bit of a problem I have but sure it’s not a bad problem.

“Fancy houses or fancy things don’t bother me too much. I’m not big into fashion or clothes as you can see. That’s the way I am. But anything new for training horses, I find hard to let go.”

It is all designed to propel him to the top of the tree as champion.

His first winner in the saddle, the Michael Cunningham-trained Caitriona’s Choice on May 26, 1995, was ironically achieved at the expense of his boss Tony Martin, who was 15 lengths back in second on Ballineva, trained by a young up-and-comer, Willie Mullins.

Mullins has enjoyed astonishing success subsequently. The 61-year-old has been champion 12 times, including the last 11 seasons, but over the last two campaigns, has been challenged by Elliott in an unprecedented fashion since establishing his dominance. It must be strange, having your best season and feeling a little disappointed at its conclusion.

“To win an English and Irish National, train over 200 winners, eight winners at Cheltenham; I’ve had a brilliant year. I can’t complain.

“When Samcro fell, I just wanted to lie down and cry, and you look up at the screen and all the cameras are on you. So what do you do? You just keep smiling.

“We were getting a kick in the teeth every second race at Punchestown, you’ve got cameras on you, people watching – you just have to keep smiling and be gracious in defeat. And that’s one thing I’ve always tried to be because I realise how lucky I am to be in the position I’m in.

DEFLATING

“The week it was, if we’d 20 winners we wouldn’t have beaten Willie. I was nearly happier it was over on Wednesday than last year, when it went to the last day, ‘cos that was just deflating.

“At this stage now, we’re just sitting back and laughing. But as I always say, to be in the same sentence as Willie Mullins, to be mentioned with him – Willie Mullins is probably the greatest National Hunt trainer of all time. Maybe people will say I’m wrong or ignorant to say that, and will talk about Tom Dreaper, Paddy Mullins and Vincent O’Brien but I think what Willie Mullins is doing is unbelievable. Nobody has done what he’s doing. I was born either 20 years too late or too early.

“Willie set the standard and we all have to raise our bar to beat him and I think that the standard has got so high that Willie has had to raise that standard again. Willie is a gentleman and I’ve great time for him. He’s got 20-something years on me so hopefully I’ll get there some day.”

It is only a matter of time.

Samcro

“It’s not decided whether he’s gonna go chasing our hurdling yet. Obviously I’ll have to sit down and talk to Michael and Eddie. It would have been great if he stood up at Punchestown because if he’d went and won the Irish Champion Hurdle, you’d be saying ‘Right, we’re gonna have a go at the Champion Hurdle’, where now we’re still in limbo, we’re not sure what we’re doing. But he’s a very good horse and we’re lucky to have him.”

Gigginstown’s support

“I get on great with Michael and Eddie. If they’d a problem, they’d say it to you. That’s not to say, who knows what would happen down the road but if you’re straight with them they’re straight with you. Eddie would be very good with advice when you want it.

“I’m not just reliant on one owner. I’ve an awful lot of good owners. You can’t think about what might happen if someone took their horses away. If you think like that in life, you’re not gonna go anywhere.

“If my string went in half and I’d enough money to pay my mortgage every year and pay the wages, I’m happy. Of course you wanna be comfortable but money doesn’t matter to me. It’s winners I want.”

NEW STOCK

“You need fresh horses coming in. Even if I hadn’t an order, I’d still go to a sale and come out of it with a couple of horses. I’d always have lads sending me horses. I never turn down a horse. You could turn something away and it could be the next Hurricane Fly. You never know. I love training horses. It’s my life, it’s what I do.

“I was looking at a picture with Eddie O’Leary on his phone the other day. He had Don Cossack and War Of Attrition in the same picture. The amount of horses they’ve bought to find the two of them, it’s frightening. It just goes to show that money doesn’t buy everything. But to go to those sales is a dream. We go to all the sales in England, Ireland, France. You’re always hoping you’re going to find the next Don Cossack.”

Winter vs Summer

“We have got a big staff to pay, people to keep going so it’s good to have a few to keep the whole thing going. I’d love to have more Cup horses, staying horses. I’d love to have a horse for the Melbourne Cup, for them races.

“We have 10 or 12 two-year-olds and we’ll start them off the next couple of weeks. We had Beckford last year, that was brilliant. We got to the Breeders’ Cup and I really enjoyed that. That was a brilliant trip. It would be nice if we had a few more like him but my heart is in National Hunt racing. I can’t wait for Navan to start back.”

Why most of his racing staff are female

“The girls that travel with the horses are brilliant. The lads can’t wait to get home. The girls will make sure they’re okay when they get home, bandage them, spend time with them. It isn’t that the lads don’t care for them but the girls will always take that little extra step to make sure the horses look great on the day and are looked after in every way right until they’re back here.”

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