ON Tuesday afternoon Gordon Elliott is sitting at his kitchen table with a list of the entries for the Irish Grand National and a pink highlighter.
“I’m just looking at all these horses that fell early in Aintree on Saturday, they could probably turn up here,” he muses.
It’s been a hectic few weeks. It always is at this time of year. Cheltenham was tough going - mentally and physically. Aintree as well. Fairyhouse this week. Punchestown the week after. But Elliott would have it no other way. And, in any case, it all pales in comparison to his general wellbeing this time 12 months ago.
That was turmoil and trauma. It was a world turned upside down and inside out; a place Elliott never wants to return to. That piece of history will always be there, but he has resurrected himself with the help of a fabulous team of staff, long and short-standing owners who galvanised their already strong loyalty and a few close friends that you suspect would do anything for him.
The result, in pure numerical form, is 142 winners since his October return, seven of them at the top level, with the latest two coming last Saturday. By all means, it has been a highly successful comeback and now it’s a case of kicking on again.
Ronan Groome (RG): So let’s start with Cheltenham. Friday evening, just after the Martin Pipe, what were you thinking about the week you’ve just had?
Gordon Elliott (GE): Look, we had two winners and seven seconds. If Conflated and Farouk D’Alene stood up, we’d probably have had nine seconds. We were bang there and we just kept hitting the crossbar. We’ve set a high standard for ourselves down the years going to Cheltenham and of course you always want more but lots of people come out of Cheltenham with no winners. The biggest disappointment was losing Ginto. With what’s happened to me over the last year or so, I can take anything on the chin, but when you lose a good horse like him, that’s harder.
RG: Noel and Valerie (Moran), they’ve haven’t had the best of luck over there so far.
GE: Yeah, you say that, but they had a couple of placed horses this year and you know, they’ve only been in the game a few years. I’d never say they’ve had no luck. I actually think when people get their Cheltenham winners early, they maybe don’t appreciate it. When it does happen for them, it’s going to be special.
Noel and Valerie are on their way up and I wouldn’t say their luck is bad at Cheltenham. I think people can over-egg that. It’s like saying my luck is bad at Cork, but I do train some winners there - it’s probably just a numbers thing. It’s more important that they’re good sports people and they know they’re not going to win everyday. That’s massive actually - they’re good winners, but they’re even better at dealing with losing if you know what I mean.
RG: For me, when I look at how things have developed for you over the last 12 months, the support of your owners has been the biggest factor. That must have meant a lot, personally and professionally?
GE: I’ve got a great bunch of owners. From the new owners we’ve got in the yard to the existing owners, it’s been unbelievable. They’ve all been very loyal and I’m trying to repay them as good as I can, the best I can and train as many winners wherever I have to go.
RG: With Cheltenham, you do some amount of preview nights in the run up. It’s all talk for weeks on end and then when you get over there and it’s not going to plan as such, it must be tough going?
GE: Ah yeah but most owners know the type of person I am. It is tough. Coming out of Cheltenham this year, I hate saying I was disappointed because maybe it sounds like I’m being selfish, so I’m not thinking like that. Maybe I do need to cut down on the preview nights but I never like to let anyone down. The way I see it in life is that if you do something nice for someone, they’ll do something nice for you. You could go around with your head up your arse and be not nice about it, but that’s not helping anyone.
RG: How do you assess your season as a whole?
GE: If you asked me that this time last year, that I’d have had 142 winners between Ireland and Britain, I’d have taken hand and all. We’ve kept our head down, worked hard and we’ve a great team. I think apart from Willie, no one has trained as many winners in Ireland again this year. Obviously we missed the first part of the season as well. We’ve had a good season and I’m happy. We’ve a nice bunch of young horses, we’re restocking and that’s what it’s all about.
RG: The other big thing about your season was the initial stages of your comeback, you got a great reception everywhere you went.
GE: The thing about Irish people, when you’re down they’ll kick you, but when you’re up they’ll be behind you. But racing people are different, we’re a tight community. Coming back, it was unbelievable. We were clapped into so many places - that meant a lot. I haven’t had one person be horrible to me since I came back racing. I know who drops their head and won’t talk to me and I know who’ll look for their five minutes of fame, but that doesn’t bother me. I’ve got to keep my head up and keep going, keep doing the best for my owners.
RG: Do you think you’ve changed much as a person in the last 12 months?
GE: I suppose I’m probably appreciating other things more. I was in a rat race before. All I was thinking was winners, winners, winners. I suppose you appreciate life a little bit more now and your family, and life around the yard. Before I was just besotted with winners, and I kind of still am, but the eyes are more open. There is a lot of falseness in this game. That is the one thing I’ve noticed. I know who my friends are, whose false and who isn’t and I don’t hold any bones about that.
RG: What do you mean by falseness?
GE: Falseness - who’s looking for their five minutes of fame. Who’d cut the back of you when you’re down and slap you on the back as soon as you’re back up. I know them all. That’s the game we’re in, but you’ve got to keep your head up and keep going forward.
RG: There was a lot of talk of your form going into Aintree?
GE: Yeah, that didn’t bother me at all. That’s one thing you have to block out and I don’t mean you or anyone else, but all these pundits saying and writing stuff. If you actually go through the stats, we had loads of seconds.
RG: What about that first day you must be thinking here we go again after Cheltenham?
GE: Yeah! Same again - but all the horses were running well. For Pied Piper to lose that race in the enquiry, it was just a sign of the few weeks we were having. I just laughed to be honest. There was no point even worrying about it. I’m not sure if the owners are going to appeal it, but I thought we were unlucky to lose it.
RG: Delta Work ran very well in the National but I want to ask you about the winner, trained by Emmet Mullins, at a similar age to when you won your first National, with a horse who was also breaking trends.
GE: Yeah, Emmet is a world-class trainer. When he fancies them, he doesn’t miss. I actually thought it was poor the way ITV gave him barely any time. For a trainer of Emmet’s age sending out a novice to win the National, I thought it was disappointing he didn’t get more recognition. I can understand the focus on the Waley-Cohens of course, but I just thought he deserved more time.
RG: That’s interesting because a lot of people were wondering why you weren’t on ITV after your two winners on Saturday.
GE: Yeah I don’t know why they didn’t interview me. A lot of people have rang me and asked if it was a case that I wouldn’t talk to them - I’ve absolutely no problem with ITV. I did an interview with them in Cheltenham if I’m not mistaken. I’ve no problem speaking to most of them on ITV.
RG: Kevin Blake was saying on the Betfair podcast that the programme editor (for ITV) said it was a timing issue, that you were out on the track for one of your wins.
GE: I’m out on the track to watch every race and I’m back in the winners enclosure with every horse. I wouldn’t refuse an interview with them.
RG: Is that very disappointing to you?
GE: A year ago it would have disappointed me a lot, now you kind of look at things differently. You’re on terrestrial television and you’ve two Grade 1 winners - how many others did that last week? They seem more interested in looking at buns and cakes than actually concentrating on the horses and talking to the owners and trainers.
RG: So how are you looking for Fairyhouse this weekend?
GE: I’ve a good team, I’ll have about five or six horses for the National. Probably most of them want a bit of softer ground to be honest. If the ground stays good Fakir D’Alene would probably be the one, he was fourth in the Kim Muir, but I’d be slightly worried about the ground for a few of the other ones. I’m looking forward to it. It’s the 150th running. It’s a local track, I’ve won it once, I’d love to win it again.
RG: You’ve always been proud of where you come from? Winning at your local tracks?
GE: I’m a Summerhill man. If anyone asks me where are you from, I say I live in Longwood, but I’m from Summerhill. I’m a big Meath man - I go to all the games. I was at the girls’ final there on Sunday. I’m proud of where I’m from and I love training winners in my county. It is special when you do that.
RG: I didn’t know you were that into the GAA?
GE: Ah yeah, I’d go to every Meath match. It’s great to meet people as well. GAA and racing would be closely linked.
RG: You’ve spent big on point-to-pointers again in the recent months? That source of horses has always been integral to your business.
GE: Yeah, I was reared in point-to-points. A lot of good horses are coming from points and I’ve a good relationship with a lot of the lads who are bringing them through. To be honest the horses are probably making a little bit too much at the moment but that’s the way of the world. If I don’t buy them, there is always an underbidder.
RG: Yeah, that horse you bought at Aintree last week, Croke Park, cost €150,000 as a store.
GE: That’s what I’m saying. It’s frightening that these horses are nearly making winner’s prices as three-year-old horses unraced. But I remember Noel Meade telling me one day, if you win in the sales ring you win in the racecourse. Nine times out of 10, the good horses cost the big money. I know one can slip through and you could pay 20 grand for one and it becomes a champion but it doesn’t happen too often.
RG: What is the process like at these point sales? How much work goes into them and do you always have an owner lined up?
GE: I’d view the horses with Eddie O’Leary, Mags O’Toole and Aidan O’Ryan. We go through them and see what we all think. Then you might have an owner who says he might like a horse and you put X-horse and Y-horse to him and take it from there. We work hard every sale. Mouse (O’Ryan) would have a good relationship with all my owners because he’s been with me for so long. Eddie has been helping a bit more since Gigginstown slowed down and Mags is a huge help as well.
RG: And what about those lads who’ve been around you from the start?
GE: Yeah Mouse, (Tom) Howley and Busty. They’ve been friends and allies of mine for years. Through thick or thin they’re always with you. When we had a rough couple of weeks last year, Howley and Mouse never left the house here for two weeks. They’re just good friends, we’ve always trucked together.
RG: And Ryan McElligott is a big help to you as well?
GE: Yeah Ryan is very important. When you’re going well, he’ll keep you on the ground and when you’re going badly, he’ll get you back up. He’s very clever, if you ever needed advice, he’s just solid. I’d be friends with him, Gary O’Brien and Kevin O’Ryan just from going racing. If you’re coming out of any racecourse around the country, we’d often stop somewhere for a steak and try and try solve the world!
RG: Have you thought much about Punchestown?
GE: I’ve only had a small look. I’d say a lot of the Aintree horses won’t run. To be honest we’ll probably be a bit light. It’s the end of the season, we’ve come a long way in 12 months. I just can’t wait for next season to start and put my head down and get a proper rattle at the season from start to finish. We’ve a lot of nice young horses coming through and it’s exciting times.
Our results speak for themselves and the one thing we can do is train winners, and we’re 15 or 16 winners off our 2,000th winner. It’s something I love doing.