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Gordon Elliott

They whizz past and Gordon Elliott names them, one by one.

“That’s Don Cossack, and Diamond King behind him, and No More Heroes.  Bryan is on No More Heroes.”

Bryan Cooper’s red jacket stands out in a sea of navy.

“Ucello Conti.  He’s in the National.  Desoto County.  Jack (Kennedy) is on Desoto County.  He’ll probably go straight for the County Hurdle.  You can watch him pop over a few hurdles later.”

The warm-up over, you make your way to the top of the gallop.  Gordon sniffles – dying with a cold – and pulls his wooly hat down further as the horses snake there way along the bottom, then turn left and come up the hill towards you, head on, two by two.

No More Heroes and Don Cossack lead the string, side by side in front, head to head.  As they flash past you, No More Heroes sticks his neck out.  You’d need the evidence of the camera, but he probably wins by a head.  You make a mental note, but it doesn’t really matter.  These are not the races.  The races are in four weeks’ time.

It is remarkable to think how far Gordon Elliott has come so quickly.  This time 10 years ago, he hadn’t even taken out his trainer’s licence.

Rewind further, rewind 20 years and he was an amateur rider with Tony Martin.  He took out his amateur licence when he was 16 and he was prolific in point-to-points.  He rode as an amateur for Martin Pipe for a season, the 1997/98 season.  He rode James Pigg to win the good amateur riders’ handicap chase at Cheltenham’s October meeting at the start of that season, and he rode subsequent Hennessy Gold Cup winner King’s Road for Nigel Twiston-Davies to win the Champion Bumper at the Punchestown Festival at the end of it.

All the while, however, he had a hankering to come home, set something up on his own.  He has always been ambitious like that.

“I wasn’t a good enough rider to make it,” he says candidly.  “So I had to do something else.”

He returned home, returned to Tony Martin, and started pre-training a few horses himself, all the while with the intention of setting up on his own.  When he did, he exploded onto the scene.  He won the Aintree Grand National in 2007 with Paul Nicholls cast-off Silver Birch just months after he had taken out his trainer’s licence.  He hadn’t trained a winner in Ireland before he won the Grand National with Silver Birch.

“It all happened very quickly at the time,” he recalls.  “I don’t think I really appreciated winning the National.  I’d love to do it again, I’d appreciate it fully if I was lucky enough to win it again.”

Now look around you.  Top facilities, top gallops and schooling grounds, and lots of horses, high-class horses, one of the strongest teams of National Hunt horses in the country.

The top owners have their silks hanging up here, the green and gold of JP McManus, the Gigginstown House maroon and white, the light green and dark green of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, the navy and yellow of Paul and Clare Rooney, the maroon and white stripes of Chris Jones.

And the horses are here.  You won’t have the horses without the owners, you won’t have the owners without the facilities, you won’t have the facilities without the horses.  It’s a fox, chicken, egg conundrum, but Gordon Elliott has found the combination.

“I’m very lucky,” he says.  “I’m lucky to have some top owners.  And I have great staff and some good horses.”

Put endeavour, ambition and talent into a pot, and you can produce luck. You can make your own.  This season, Elliott has emerged as clear second in the trainers’ championship behind Willie Mullins.  And you can be certain that he has his eye on the number one spot.  That’s his ambition for you.

He has had 97 National Hunt winners in Ireland so far this season.  We are only in the middle of February, and already he has surpassed last season’s total of 92, and that was his highest total ever up to that point.

“It will be great to train a hundred winners in Ireland this season,” he says.  “That has been a goal of mine for some time.”

He had his first Cheltenham Festival winner in 2011, Chicago Grey in the National Hunt Chase, and he had his second two and a half hours later when Carlito Brigante danced in in the Coral Cup.

“I thought I’d have four winners that day,” he laughs.  “Honestly.  Shows you how naïve I was.  I had never had a winner at Cheltenham before, and I thought I would have four in a day.”

But not so naïve as it turns out, not so unrealistic.  Forty minutes after Chicago Grey had won the National Hunt Chase, Jessies Dream was beaten a neck by Bostons Angel in the RSA Chase.  And in the second last race that day, the Fred Winter Hurdle, Plan A travelled like a winner into the home straight before fading up the hill to finish fourth.

So two winners, a second and a fourth.  Four winners wasn’t so far away.

Elliott also had some near misses at Cheltenham last year.  No More Heroes was unlucky in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, Taglietelle was beaten a length in the Coral Cup, Don Cossack made a mistake at the wrong time in the Ryanair Chase, Noble Endeavor was beaten a head by Killultagh Vic in the Martin Pipe Hurdle.  He did bag a winner though, Cause Of Causes in the National Hunt Chase.

“It was great to have one winner,” he says.  “If I hadn’t had a winner, I would have been sick, with all the near misses.  But when you have a winner, you can live with the near misses.  Jamie (Codd) was brilliant on Cause Of Causes.”

He could have around 20 runners at Cheltenham this year, the team headed, as this morning’s string was, by Don Cossack and No More Heroes.

Don Cossack is in rare form.  He is three for four this season, and he could have been four for four, he could have won the King George too had he not fallen at the second last fence at Kempton.  Elliott doesn’t dwell on that, it’s one of those things.  It’s racing.

There is talk of adding headgear to Don Cossack’s arsenal for the Gold Cup.  He has worked in headgear, and he has worked well.  It depends on the ground.  On soft ground, he might add the equipment, just to help him travel.  On good ground, he probably won’t.  The last thing you want to do in a Gold Cup is light up a horse too early.

No More Heroes is also in top form.  He was a high-class novice hurdler last season, but he is a better novice chaser this term.  He has been flawless over his fences, he is three for three and he loves his jumping.

Cheltenham is centre stage now for Gordon Elliott, the season funnels inexorably towards it from here.  He says that he will be delighted with one winner again this year, but you get the feeling that his ambition stretches further than that.

© The Sunday Times, 14th February 2016