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Gordon Elliott

On this day three years ago, Gordon Elliott had never trained a Grade 1 winner. He had trained a Grand National winner, he had trained an Ebor winner on the flat, but he had never trained a Grade 1 winner over jumps. Then, that afternoon, Jessies Dream went and won the Drinmore Chase.

The similarities between Jessies Dream and Don Cossack are marked: both bumper winners, both progressive novice hurdlers, both exciting young chasers, both winners of the two-mile-six-furlong beginners’ chase at Galway’s October meeting. Don Cossack will bid to continue the parallel with his erstwhile stable companion by winning the Grade 1 Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse this afternoon.

“We were disappointed on the day when he got beaten at Punchestown two weeks ago,” says Elliott. “But I don’t think he lost that much in defeat.”

He didn’t. He went down by just a half a length to Morning Assembly after looking the most likely winner at the second last fence, the pair of them clear of the talented Clonbanan Lad. Morning Assembly is potentially top class, a Grade 1 winner over hurdles who could be an even better chaser. Elliott puts his hands up. They were just beaten by a better horse on the day.

That’s the thing about Gordon Elliott, he calls it as he sees it, straight up, no excuses. He has never tried to conceal his enthusiasm for Don Cossack. When the horse won his third bumper at Fairyhouse in April 2012, he said that he was simply very good. When he won his maiden hurdle at Navan the following November, he said that he would be even better over fences. He competed at a high level over hurdles after that, but he didn’t win again in three runs.

“He was a bit disappointing at the end of last season,” says the trainer. “He just had a few niggly problems. But we think we have them sorted now. And he was always going to be a better chaser than a hurdler anyway. I have always thought a lot of him for sure, but it’s up to him now. He has to go and do it now.”

Silver Birch did it on the racetrack for Elliott. Famously, the trainer sent out the then 10-year-old to win the Aintree Grand National in 2007 before he had trained a winner under Rules in Ireland.

He had started riding out and mucking out as a 12-year-old with Tony Martin, who was nearby and with whom his uncle had a point-to-pointer, and he spent a couple of seasons with Martin Pipe in the late 1990s. Put the experience that he gained with those two masters of their trade with a sharp mind and a relentless ambition, and it is hardly surprising that Elliott is now one of the leading trainers in Ireland.

He rode James Pigg to win the amateur riders’ chase at Cheltenham’s October meeting in 1997 for Martin Pipe, and he rode Iris Bleu for Pipe to win the amateur riders’ chase at Cheltenham’s November meeting, but it was always in Ireland that he saw his future. He rode around 200 point-to-point winners in Ireland, and another 50 under Rules, but a continuing battle with his weight and frustrating injuries meant that training was the logical path.

Although based in Ireland, he has always been a regular raider in Britain. In 2006/07, his first season with a licence, he had four winners in Britain, including the small matter of that Grand National winner, and none in Ireland. In 2007/08, he had eight winners in Britain and just six in Ireland. It wasn’t until the 2010/11 season that he had more winners in Ireland than he had in Britain, 62 to 36. That was 98 winners in the season on the track, and that was impressive.

He hasn’t forgotten his roots either. Last season, his first full season training out of his new yard at Cullentra House, he was leading handler in the point-to-point field. This season so far, he has had 14 winners under Rules in Britain and 33 in Ireland, leaving him second behind Willie Mullins in the trainers’ championship here.

Most of the top owners in Ireland have horse with Elliott, a measure of his standing in the pantheon of Irish trainers, and Gigginstown House, owners of Don Cossack, play a key role.

“They are great owners,” says Elliott. “I train a lot of their young horses for point-to-points and bumpers, and then they go to other trainers, while we get the pick of their horses from Pat Doyle. You would love to be holding onto horses like Very Wood (whom he trained to win a point-to-point and a bumper, and who runs today in the Royal Bond Hurdle), but that is the arrangement and it works very well. I have some lovely horses for them for the track.”

Don Cossack is one of those. Roi Du Mee, winner of the Champion Chase four weeks ago and on track for the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, is another. Toner D’Oudaries is another.

Another leading Irish owner Barry Connell owns Mount Benbulben, who fell in that Chase at the fourth last fence when he was travelling well. “The sky would be the limit for him if we could just sort out his jumping,” says Gordon. “We have done a lot of work with him though, Danny (Mullins) has done a lot of schooling with him and he has been down to Con Power’s. He probably won’t run now until the King George.”

That’s another Grade 1 contest.

© The Sunday Times, 1st December 2013