Donn's Articles » Gordon Elliott

Gordon Elliott

Jessies Dream looks good as he circles at the bottom of the school. Lean, fit, athletic. Gordon Elliott watches intently as the horse sets off under Bobby McNally, jumps the first schooling fence well, gets in a little tight to the second, gets in a little tight to the third, but negotiates them okay.

The horse trots back down.

“Okay?” asks Gordon.

“Okay,” says Bobby. “He’s just a bit anxious to get to the other side.”

“We go once more?”


They set off again. Ping the first, ping the second, ping the third. Perfect.


“Yeah, great,” says Bobby. “He’s mad for it.”

Gordon Elliott doesn’t try to conceal his enthusiasm for Jessies Dream. That’s his first time over a fence since he won his beginners’ chase at Galway last month, and should put him spot on for the re-scheduled Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse on Thursday. A hugely exciting young hurdler when he was with Willie Mullins two seasons ago, winner of all three of his races, he fell at the second last fence on his first run for Elliott in the hot beginners’ chase won by Zaarito at last year’s Leopardstown Christmas Festival.

“He just gave his hock a little twist when he fell,” says Elliott, “and I’d say he wasn’t just right really for the rest of the season. We ran him after that in the Grade 2 novices’ chase back at Leopardstown at the end of January, and he finished third behind Roberto Goldback. He ran well, but he came home not right after the race, I’d say he just wasn’t fully right going into it.”

Elliott gave him a bit of a break after that, tried to give him time to recover. Owner Martin Lynch was keen that the horse should run at the Punchestown Festival, so that was his target, but the World Series Hurdle rather than a novices’ chase. Yet to win a steeplechase, there was no point is sacrificing your novice status for the following season in the dying embers of the previous one.

It was a rush to get him back. A twisted hock is not a serious injury in the broad spectrum of the injuries that racehorses can inflict upon themselves, but it needed time, he needed six weeks’ rest. When you lose six weeks out of the season, out of the second half of the season, you are playing catch-up with fervour and, in reality, the Punchestown Festival probably won this race.

“He needed the run at Punchestown,” says the trainer. “We ran him all right, but he needed the run. He ran well, he was only beaten about 10 or 11 lengths by Quevega, and he was close up behind some of the top staying hurdlers around, but he probably needed the run fairly badly.”

He needed his seasonal debut at Galway at the end of last month a little as well, but he was still fit enough to run a race. Bobby McNally said after the race that the horse was only 50% fit. Elliott laughs. 75% perhaps. He was fit enough to race, but he was sure to come on for it.

Jessies Dream was good at Galway. He jumped well, he travelled well through the race and he stayed on well up the hill to post an impressive victory. You would have liked to have seen the race work out a little better – the second, third, fourth and fifth from that race have all been beaten since – but you can only beat whatever is put in front of you on any given day, and Jessies Dream beat them well.

By the time he ran at Galway, Jessies Dream was racing in David Johnson’s famous colours, royal blue body, emerald green sleeves, spotted cap. Think Robert Sangster. Synonymous with the Martin Pipe era of National Hunt racing in the UK – Cyfor Malta, Celestial Gold, Our Vic, Comply Or Die, Well Chief – it was strangely refreshing to see them carried to victory on an Irish racecourse by an Irish-trained horse.

Elliott had known David Johnson since the days that he rode as an amateur for Pipe, he had ridden winners for him, and the owner had always told him to keep an eye out for a good horse. When Jessies Dream came up for sale, the trainer had no hesitation in picking up the phone. This fellow was good, perhaps the best that Elliott had ever had.

“It was great that he won the first day for David Johnson,” says the trainer. “You put yourself under pressure, a man like him having his first runner in Ireland as an owner. It was nice to get him to win that race and to be going for a Grade 1 now. He didn’t come over for Galway, but he’ll be at Fairyhouse on Sunday.”

Elliott’s career in racing began as an amateur rider with Tony Martin almost 20 years ago. He started riding out with Martin when he was 12, took out his amateur licence when he was 16, and proceeded to ride a couple of hundred point-to-point winners. When he rode on the track, he preferred to ride over fences than in bumpers, jumping was what he loved, point-to-points and hunting with the Ward Union rather than racing over two miles without a fence or a hurdle in sight.

At the start of the 1997/98 season, Elliott answered an ad that Martin Pipe had placed looking for a stable amateur, got the job and went over to ride for Pipe. He rode James Pigg to win the amateur riders’ chase at Cheltenham’s October meeting, and he enjoyed his time there, but after a season he was anxious to come back to Ireland, he missed the point-to-point fields. He came back to Tony Martin and started pre-training a couple of young horses of his own, always with the notion that he would start to train himself at some point, a process that was expedited by injury and the continual battle with the scales.

It is remarkable to think that Elliott took out a trainer’s licence as recently as 2006. Despite the fact that he is still seeking his first Grade 1 winner, already he is recognised as one of the top trainers in Ireland, an astute placer of his horses. Not only has he trained 38 winners in Ireland this season so far, more than any other trainer in the country – three more than Noel Meade, nine more than Willie Mullins – but he has also trained 29 winners in the UK.

It is also remarkable that, a major step in his ascension, on 14th April 2007, as a mere 29-year-old who held a trainer’s licence for just over a year, Elliott sent out Silver Birch to win the Aintree Grand National. He hadn’t even trained a winner in Ireland, and here he was, winning the Grand National, the most famous horse race in the world, a race that had eluded some of the top professionals in the sport.

“It all happened very quickly at the time,” says the trainer. “I’m not sure that I fully appreciated it. I’d love to win it again. If I won it again, I’d make sure I took it all in.”

Jessies Dream may be a Grand National horse one day, but he may not be. He may be even better than that.

© The Sunday Times, 28th November 2010