'I wish I came on the scene ten or 20 years ago when Willie wasn't around'
David Jennings visits top trainer Gordon Elliott before the Cheltenham Festival
Published in the Racing Post on March 4, 2018
Let's just get it out of the way first. You will waste several minutes skimming over each paragraph searching for the name and nothing will be digested until you find it, so the best thing to do is get it over and done with. Aren't you an impatient lot.
"Samcro looks very good and you would love to have five more like him, but he needs to keep improving and doing what he is doing to win at Cheltenham," says Gordon Elliott, the words leaving his lips so fast you would swear there was a tape recorder tucked away under his tongue and all he does is press play when Samcro is mentioned.
The synopsis of the hot favourite for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle is diluted with a large splash of scepticism due to comments made about Don Cossack when he was still wearing nappies.
"I made a mistake once and I swore I would never do it again," he ruefully recalls. "I said Don Cossack was the best horse I'd ever trained. I told the whole world he was an aeroplane and that he was this and that. I should have just shut my mouth."
That's the Samcro stuff done with. I mean it. No more mentions.
We already know Samcro's secrets anyway. Colin Bowe, whose stable he was bought out of after a point-to-point win, has been barking about him. Barry O'Neill, who rode him to that point success, reckons he will win a Gold Cup some day. Jack Kennedy has never sat on anything like him before and Davy Russell says he might be the best we will ever see and that the €380,000 he cost is the best bargain of all time. Thanks to Twitter we even saw him roll around in the mud the morning after last month's Deloitte demolition. It got thousands of views within minutes.
Samcro cannot have a shave without us wanting to know what sort of razor he uses, but what about the trainer who has coached him so cleverly? Do you not want to know more? Of course you do.
It has just nudged past noon on the Tuesday before last. The Cheltenham countdown has ticked towards irritated trainers time but Elliott emerges from a stable with his two hands in his pockets, looking about as anxious as Anne Hegerty answering a question on ITV's The Chase.
Temperatures are touching 13 degrees. The Beast from the East has not even grown his claws yet and the ever-multiplying Cullentra House Stables are basking in glorious spring sunshine. It's warm but chilly enough for inside to be a more suitable place to chat.
We sit at the kitchen table with his 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Don Cossack and his 2007 National hero Silver Birch on the wall keeping an eye on us. The trophy cabinet is getting cluttered now and the 2017 top trainer at Cheltenham trophy sits proudly towards the front. Six winners scoffed that. It was not the one he wanted last season, though. There was another ornament that would have meant so much more and a spot will always be saved no matter how cluttered it gets.
"Everyone was talking about it. Everyone. I couldn't get a carton of milk in the shop without someone saying something to me about it," he says, finally opening up about the race that gripped Irish racing, and even Irish sport, for the first five months of 2017.
"I thought about it every single night as I went to bed. It never went out of my head. I had a chance of being champion trainer in one of the biggest sports in Ireland. You only get so many chances. There can only be one winner and you might only get ten goes at it, maybe less.
"Being champion trainer at Cheltenham didn't really matter to me. There was nobody even there watching when I got my presentation. It was great and all that, and I was delighted to do it, but you cannot compare it to winning the Irish trainers' title. They are worlds apart.
"Willie is the man. Willie is the daddy. And for me to be talked about in the same breath as Willie is something else. To be leading Willie Mullins going into Punchestown was never something I thought would happen. Willie has brought it to the next level and it is up to the rest of us to keep up with him and try to knock him off his pedestal."
Mullins was clinging on to that pedestal by his fingernails with just two days left of Punchestown last April. Elliott led by €126,830 on Thursday night. He lost by just shy of €200,000 on Saturday evening.
"I was heartbroken driving home that Saturday night. Gutted I was," he admits before pausing to try to describe the heartache. "I never played football, but I suppose it would be like the feeling you get after losing a cup final in injury time by conceding a last-minute goal or something like that."
Did that excruciating pain take long to heal?
"We were back out the next morning doing what we always do. There was no time for sulking and feeling sorry for yourself. We were all back in work the next morning and raring to go again.
"It has made me hungrier. It made me want it more, but this year I'm able to do things a bit differently. I'm able to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Last year I wanted to run everything and try to win everywhere with everything. This year I'm picking and choosing races. This fella can go there, she might go here, he can wait for something. I'm more careful.
"Last year I could not stop thinking about being champion trainer. I kept saying to everyone I had no chance and I always brushed it off but it did get to me. It was on my mind every hour of every day. It consumed me.
"F**k it, though, I wish I came on the scene ten or 20 years ago instead of now when Willie wasn't around."
What was Elliott like ten years ago compared to now?
"He was wild. Much wilder than he is now," says the more mature version, who turned 40 on Friday. "I suppose you could say that I'm more sensible now. I'm pretty easy-going. I enjoyed the good days. I still do. I appreciate everything more now than I did then. I love what I do more now than ever before.
"Very little annoys me any more. I used to get agitated much easier. The one thing that bothers me is if I go through a weekend and I don't get a winner. That really bugs me. People start questioning you then. I don't like that.
"The other thing is injuries. The hardest thing about training horses is injuries. Jessies Dream hit me hard at the time. He was the best horse I had. He was my first Grade 1 winner and he almost won an RSA. He was the star of the yard. He got injured the following season. He was probably the only proper horse I had at the time. It was a big blow.
"We're lucky now. We have a few nice horses, so if one gets injured there are others. That's one of the advantages that myself or Willie or one of the big yards have. That is why you need the numbers.
"I'm happy with the numbers we have but the turnover needs to be good and we need fresh faces coming in all the time.
"It's funny, I get as much of a kick out of winning a 0-95 handicap handicap during the summer or a little winner on a Monday at Ayr as anything, but you have to be realistic. You have to get rid of the horses who can't win races. You can't be sentimental in this game."
Elliott has always remembered his roots. It was plundering small prizes in Perth that got him going and he still has that ability to find the right race for the right horse, no matter if he's rated 80 or 160.
"I do get pleasure out of knowing I've trained a Royal Ascot winner, a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and a Grand National winner at Aintree, but I guess I get the most pleasure out of knowing I can win with every type of horse. I'm not just able to train the good ones, the Grade 1 winners.
"Look at Poormans Hill. He was only rated 88 when he came here. He has now won six times and is rated 121 over fences. I liked to win with every type of horse and any owner, and there are plenty of them. Whoever says that they won't send me a horse because I have too many good horses now are wrong. I've never changed."
That's Gordon the trainer, but what about Gordon the man? Is there anything he would like to change about himself?
"I would love to lose a bit of weight," is the instant reply. "I'm used to getting slagged and I know it's only a bit of craic but I would love to be a bit slimmer. I always struggled with my weight when I was an amateur and I suppose that has spiralled since I stopped riding. It doesn't get me down or anything like that and I can take a slagging, but I would like to lose a bit.
"Some people might say I'm a bit ignorant at times too but I don't think I am. If I don't like someone I won't bother with them. I'm not two-faced. That is one thing I definitely am not."
There are a few characters in Aussie soap Home and Away who cannot say the same with murders and affairs aplenty on the sandy shores of Summer Bay. The target audience might be teenagers but there is a 40-year-old trainer who never misses an episode and, somehow, he is not afraid to admit it.
"I watch Home and Away every day. I never miss it. Nobody rings me between half one and two. They know. It is always Sky-plussed and, if I'm racing, it will be the first thing I watch when I get home. I always watched it as a kid and I just kept watching it as I got older. Look, I know it is not Oscar-winning stuff and the storyline only changes every so often but it helps me switch off."
Any regrets (apart from getting sucked into Summer Bay, of course)?
"My biggest regret in life is not to have learned to read or write better. I could find my way through an article in the Racing Post because I would know what I'm doing and what it is about but I wouldn't be able to write a letter or anything like that. I'm terrible."
It is not pens or pencils that make you champion trainer, though. It is natural talent combined with grafting and a touch of genius.
Only a genius could get Cause Of Causes to win three races in a row at the Cheltenham Festival. Only a genius could get the worst horse Gigginstown have ever owned to win the Martin Pipe at last year's festival. And, only a genius would Michael O'Leary trust to get the best out of his horses.
"It was Norman Williamson who put Eddie [Michael O'Leary's brother and Gigginstown House Stud Racing Manager] in touch with me," says Elliott, when asked how the partnership started.
"He said to him one day at the Doncaster sales that he should think about giving me a horse. It was the year after I won the Grand National. Eddie being Eddie said that he will see how I get on over the next year or two and see could I prove myself. Then next year I trained a nice few winners so he sent me one. Then it was two. That became ten and ten went to 20 and 20 went to 50 and now you see where we are.
"Do you know the funny thing, and people might not believe me, but I've never had a row with Eddie or Michael. They might have different ideas about horses and where they should go but we have never fallen out or not spoken for a few days. That's never happened. Sometimes I make mistakes and I know that myself.
"Michael is very, very easy to deal with. Once you are honest with him and tell him the truth, that is all you need to do. They take bad news in the same way as they take good news. Once you mention it, that's it. It's gone. It won't be talked about again. I'm very lucky really. They owned Gold Cup horses before they had horses with me. We grew bigger together I suppose you could say."
Indeed you have, Gordon, and it might be about to get bigger as Samcro is the biggest blockbuster in town on Wednesday week. Ssshhh, we weren't supposed to mention him again.
'I'm delighted to see Olly doing so well'
"Olly [Murphy, former assistant] was very clever when he went home to England and I am delighted to see him doing so well. A lot of the problems with trainers who start up in England is that they put on a tweed suit and want to go to Sandown or Cheltenham or Aintree or Ascot. That is the mistake they make.
"Olly is going to smaller tracks like Fakenham where he can train winners. That is what I did. It is not about the big days at the big tracks when you are starting off. You need to work your way up from the bottom.
"One of the first runners I ever had was Brandon Mountain at Chletenham. I will never forget Martin Pipe coming up to me that day and asking me what on earth I was doing there. I told him I had a runner. He asked me had he got a chance and I replied 'no, probably not'. He said, 'Well, what are you doing here then?' He told me to keep my horses in the worst of company and yourself in the best of company and that was a piece of advice that I've never, ever forgotten.
"I was like the boys in the tweed suits. I wanted to have a runner at Cheltenham, but I would have been better off up at Sedgefield that day with Brandon Mountain. It is about winners, no matter where they are."
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