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Sunday, 09 December, 2018

All not lost for Gordon Elliott despite presence of phenomenal Mullins

Gordon Elliott: recorded a double at Galway on Tuesday
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What does Gordon Elliott have to do to win the trainers' title?

It was easy to see how dejected Gordon Elliott was at Punchestown when he came off second best to an irresistible Willie Mullins surge, but the trainer should not feel too disheartened despite a last-gasp reverse for the second time in 12 months.

Elliott, remember, was top trainer for the second consecutive year at the Cheltenham Festival, captured a second Grand National thanks to Tiger Roll, has had more winners in an Irish jumps season than anyone, apart from you know who, and his prize-money haul of €5,158,751 would have landed him the championship in any other season.

Watch Samcro win at Cheltenham

He accepts he is up against one of the finest operators in the sport's history, but Mullins is 20-odd years his senior and Elliott's time will come.

Perhaps, with the support of the powerful Gigginstown House Stud, and more older horses for the championship races, the man who would be king will be crowned in 2018-19, although Mullins is 1-5 with Paddy Power to reign again.

Could Might Bite or Native River become the first winner of the JCR Triple Crown?

Hard to say, of course, but connections of Might Bite, certainly, do seem up for the bid, with trainer Nicky Henderson hinting after the nine-year-old's impressive success in the Bowl at Aintree recently they might be a bit braver with their handsome star this term.

And why not? Might Bite might have done some silly things as a youngster, but in his four races in the 2017-18 campaign he looked far more straightforward and grown up.

Watch Might Bite win the King George

Heavy ground for the first leg of Jockey Club Racecourses' Triple Crown at Haydock – the Betfair Chase – might not be ideal, but then he does not have the intermediate chase he started in last term as an option. 

We know he is mustard at Kempton, so the 32Red King George VI Chase will be marked in red on Henderson's office calendar and, while you have to go back to 1998 the last time a ten-year-old (Cool Dawn) won the Gold Cup, Might Bite has had only 11 starts over fences so might be fresher than the other 'veterans' who have tried in recent years.

Perhaps Might Bite has what it takes to emulate the mighty Kauto Star, who completed the treble in its previous guise in the 2006-07 season.

His Cheltenham conqueror, Native River, is likely to be busier this season and trainer Colin Tizzard mentioned the Betfair Chase when talking about potential plans on Saturday. He would be a serious contender too, while it will be intriguing to see if stablemate Thistlecrack can return to his best.

Davy Russell: riding better than ever

What chance does Davy Russell have of retaining his title?

It must be a leading one, given the injury troubles of main rival Ruby Walsh last season. It would be no surprise for Walsh to pick and choose his rides more carefully when he returns from his second leg break in five months.

And when you are stable jockey to Willie Mullins it his perhaps a shade easier to side with quality over quantity - there is certainly plenty of the former for Walsh, a 12-time champion, to concentrate on.

Watch Davy Russell win the Grand National on Tiger Roll

His presence in Mullins' team might make it difficult for Paul Townend, runner-up to Russell, to follow his 2010-11 triumph, so perhaps the reigning champ will remain the one to beat.

Few could argue the 38-year-old, top jockey at the Cheltenham Festival and a Grand National hero on Tiger Roll, has ever ridden better, while the kick up the backside – his words – he received from Gigginstown supremo Michael O'Leary in 2013 has clearly done the trick, with Russell starring on the track and seemingly in a good place off it.  

Can Hughes or Skelton mount a challenge to Johnson?

Just as Richard Johnson may have thought each new season was an opportunity to break Sir Anthony McCoy's stranglehold on the title, the likes of Brian Hughes and Harry Skelton – second and third to the Herefordshire powerhouse in the Stobart-supported championship – might be eyeing an improved challenge.

Watch Richard Johnson win the Gold Cup on Native River

However, they could easily find themselves in exactly the same position Johnson had to settle for behind McCoy.

The 40-year-old, showing no signs of losing his ability or strength and having forged a fruitful link-up with Lambourn ace Warren Greatrex since the summer, ran away with his third title, although Hughes might point to the fact that losing so many meetings in the north because of the weather hit his hopes.

He will probably challenge again, as will Skelton, fuelled by his equally ambitious trainer-brother Dan, who saddled more winners than anyone last season.

Increased outside support – which may well come via new agent Ian Popham – would boost Skelton's chances, but the siblings have never hidden their desire to succeed together and have stressed how important each is to the other.

Sam Twiston-Davies and Aidan Coleman are other would-be challengers, but it is worth remembering that Philip Hobbs, Johnson's chief backer, had a largely miserable season that will have affected the champ's numbers, and he is unlikely to be in such doldrums again after finishing the season with a flourish.

James Bowen: needs to learn how to drive, but steering on horses is fine

How high can champion conditional James Bowen fly?

It is important not to get carried away with young talents and heap too much pressure on them, but 17-year-old Bowen seems set for the top.

Speak to anybody in the sport and they have only positive words for the polite son of Pembrokeshire trainer Peter, who was sitting on a horse not long after he could walk.

Watch James Bowen win the Welsh Grand National on Raz De Maree

He has followed in the footsteps of elder brother Sean by becoming champion conditional and turned that race into something of a procession, pulling well clear of golden girl Bryony Frost.

Level-headed, strong and at home with the form book, the 3lb claimer is based with Nicky Henderson, but may not find himself on the Seven Barrows big guns just yet, with Nico de Boinville riding out of his skin and the champion trainer likely to spread the choice mounts among his other riders.

Bowen, who became the youngest jockey since records began to win the Welsh Grand National on Raz De Maree, also needs to learn how to drive and has his theory test on Tuesday, but his career is motoring along nicely and the young prince could one day become king.

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Speak to anybody in the game and they have only positive words for the polite son of Pembrokeshire trainer Peter
E.W. Terms
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