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'The circumstances this year have been very funny' - Gordon Elliott looks ahead to Cheltenham festival

After a curious year, the trainer previews the biggest racing festival of them all.

Gordon Elliott.
Gordon Elliott.
Image: Tim Goode

TOWARDS THE END of his open day for the racing media, as the countdown for the Cheltenham Festival gets truly under way, Gordon Elliott remarked that he was thinking of stepping up in trip with Mengli Khan and dropping back down with Hardline.

Trainers are always adding to the information bank and tweaking as needs be, but there is a sense this year that getting a handle on the novices in particular has been more of a puzzle than ever before.

“I’d say it’s the same for the public, the press and everyone” said Elliott. “There’s a lot of horses that have only had one run and they might have had two or three before so for experience and everything, it is a worry for a lot of people but everyone is in the same boat. The circumstances this year have been very funny.”

Whereas Irish history is pockmarked with a few Big Snows and the odd Big Wind prior to last year, there aren’t too many testimonies detailing a Big Drought.

The stubborn refusal of rain to fall for most of 2018, after the Beast from the East had had its wicked way with us, made the going almost too quick for flat racing here. It left national hunt trainers tearing their hair out and in reality, we have been treated to a winter of summer jumps racing.

The quality is better of course but trying to make sense of form since November is very difficult indeed, with Cheltenham – the ultimate priority for all the good ones – in mind.

Sniffles, colds and bugs (nobody mention the flu) thrive in the prevailing milder conditions as well, so many handlers are on Plan Z with their charges, having constantly had to chop and change with regard to intended engagements, fearful of running them without juice in the soil, or unable to because of sickness.

Much is made of the ‘Where’s Wally?’ routine of Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy but there will be horses line up in the shadow of the Cotswolds without having had any run at all this season.

The term started with the shock announcement that Samcro would eschew the presumed direct run at a chasing career for a tilt at the Champion Hurdle.

Given that industry media and followers are forever bemoaning the adoption of a perceived easier route, it was disappointing to see such enterprise and ambition belittled as last year’s Ballymore winner was beaten three times, most recently out the gate in the Ryanair Hurdle at Christmas. A lung infection emerged subsequently and he has been on the easy list since though may make an appearance still at Cheltenham.

It won’t be the Champion Hurdle though, because stablemate and fellow Gigginstown House-owned horse, Apple’s Jade has leapt to the forefront of thinking with regard to the two-mile championship after her annihilation of a strong field in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the beginning of the month.

The irony here is that the aforementioned bemoaning followed the daughter of Saddle Maker around as her intended engagement was the Mares’ Hurdle. If you were Elliott and the O’Leary brothers, you would have been forgiven for thinking you couldn’t win.

The Stayers’ Hurdle is where Samcro will show up now if he does make the trip to Cheltenham but it is evident that his prospects are longer term again, over the larger obstacles.

“I think there’s more important horses than Samcro to talk about now” a mildly-irritated Elliott declared at one point, as questioning on the one-time Champion Hurdle favourite continued. It has been a long grind for the Samcro team and you hope he is back to his brilliant best by this time next year.

Gordon Elliott Stable Visit - Cullentra House Apples Jade, at Cullentra House in Meath. Source: Niall Carson

For now, the star is Apple’s Jade. A seven-year-old mare, bought by Willie Mullins for Michael O’Leary but who moved to Cullentra House when the Gigginstown-Closutton partnership ended, she has been victorious in 10 Grade One contests.

The three garnered this term have come at wildly-varying distances but until Leopardstown, she was destined for a different target.

“If you want to be a jockey and don’t want to be a champion jockey; if you want to be a trainer and won’t want to be champion trainer, then you shouldn’t be in it.

“If you’ve a horse that’s got a chance of winning the Champion Hurdle, you’ve got to give it a go. It’s one of those races. She’s a hero in my eyes. If she could win the Champion Hurdle, she’d be something special, wouldn’t she?

“I’m best man for saying you should try and win the race that best suits a horse but for the year that’s in it….what would you do? She got bet in Mares’ Hurdle last year.

“She’s got 10 Grade Ones won. If she went and won the Champion Hurdle, it would be icing on the cake, wouldn’t it?

“I was nervous coming back against the geldings over two miles but she showed how good she is. This year, she’s gone from strength to strength. If she runs to the form she’s running all year, I think she’ll run a big race in the Champion Hurdle.”

Samcro was looking very well but time is his enemy.

“Cheltenham is coming fast enough. His options are Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown but the next 10 days are important.

“He looks good but until you go and give them a few good bits of work, you don’t know where you’re going and what you’re doing. It’s not the be-all and end-all. If he gets to Cheltenham, he does. If he doesn’t, whether it be Aintree or Punchestown, or we take the shoes off him and leave him to go chasing next year, there’s no decision made yet.”

Meanwhile, Tiger Roll is now one of the most popular horses in Ireland – and at Cullentra.

“I couldn’t believe how well he won on Sunday. It surprised me. I thought he’d finish second- or third-last t to be honest. It was a good pipe-opener for the cross-country race. He showed how good of a horse he is. To win at three Cheltenham Festivals… to win a Grand National and then come back and win a Boyne Hurdle…we’re very lucky to have him and he’s one of the favourites around the yard.

“It’d put a smile on your face looking at a horse like him.”

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Daragh Ó Conchúir

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