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Gordon Elliott

Gordon Elliott walked the track with Bryan Cooper on Friday morning.  Half past eight on Gold Cup morning, and trainer and rider are out on the track, talking tactics, trying to discuss and yet suppress thoughts on what might play out later that afternoon on the very ground on which they are walking.

“I was nervous,” says Elliott.  “God I was nervous.  Bryan was probably nervous too, but he wasn’t showing it.  I was probably trying to hide it from him, he was probably trying to hide it from me.”

The trainer was nervous because victory was a real possibility.  Imagine that, Gold Cup-winning trainer.

He had trained a Grand National winner before, but things were very different then.  Silver Birch was an outsider for the 2007 Grand National, a largely unconsidered 33/1 shot.  Also, Elliott was younger.  He isn’t old now, just 38, but he is box office these days, the main challenge to Willie Mullins’ world domination.  Back then he was a whipper-snapper 29-year-old trainer who didn’t really do nerves and who, remarkably, had never had a winner in Ireland.

He talks about how lucky he is, to have the horses he has, to have the staff he has, the owners he has.  He speaks about how lucky he is that Michael and Eddie O’Leary from Gigginstown House Stud put such faith in him from so early in his career. 

Gigginstown’s first Gold Cup winner was in 2006, War Of Attrition.  Michael O’Leary said then that he should stop, that it didn’t get any better than that, than winning a Gold Cup.  Thankfully, he didn’t stop.  Then 10 years later, he has his second Gold Cup.  He said on Friday that it was a nice way to celebrate the anniversary.

Define the Gold Cup, define what it means.  This is Michael O’Leary, one of the most successful business people that Ireland has every produced, and watching his horse winning the Gold Cup moves him to tears.  That’s the Gold Cup right there.

It had been a roller-coaster week for Elliott.  His three runners at the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday had run well, but none of them had won.  Then No More Heroes had got beaten in the RSA Chase on Wednesday.  Then Diamond King won the Coral Cup.  Then the news came through that No More Heroes had suffered a fatal injury.  Dizzy highs and bottomless lows.  Try to deal with all of that and still concentrate on your Gold Cup favourite.

“To lose a horse like No More Heroes was a devastating blow.  He was a top class horse, you would have been thinking that he was a future Gold Cup horse, but he was also a real gentleman.  It is devastating for everyone in the yard.  But these things happen, you have to put them behind you and move on.”

Thursday followed Wednesday and Elliott had another winner, Cause Of Causes in the last race, the Kim Muir Chase, under a typically cool ride from Jamie Codd.  Then Friday, then Gold Cup day dawned.

Elliott always loved Don Cossack.  From the day that he first arrived in the yard in 2011, a new Gigginstown House Stud recruit, a once-raced bumper horse from Eddie Hales’ yard.  He won his first three bumpers for Elliott, and the trainer dreamed.

“I suppose I made the mistake of saying publicly how much I thought of him, and I got a bit of bollicking for it!  So I just decided to let the horse do the talking after that.”

And how Don Cossack has talked.  He won the Drinmore Chase as a novice chaser, and he won a John Durkan Chase and a Kinloch Brae Chase last season, but a fall in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in 2014 and defeat in the Ryanair Chase at last year’s Festival had some people suggesting that he was not at his best at Cheltenham.  Elliott was not among them. 

“I suppose I started to think seriously that he could win a Gold Cup when he won so well at Aintree last year, and then when he came on and won at Punchestown.  He beat Djakadam and Road To Riches at Punchestown, and they had finished second and third in the Gold Cup.  You couldn’t help but think Gold Cup then.”

There was lots of talk in the lead up to Friday’s Gold Cup.  One of the best Gold Cups in recent history, they were saying.  Bryan Cooper had to choose between the two Gigginstown House horses, Don Cossack and Don Poli.  It doesn’t matter how good a rider you are, you can only ride one horse in every race.  Cooper chose Cossack; Elliott said, good choice.

“Don Cossack always had a bit of class about him,” says the trainer.  “A bit of an attitude, like the good ones have.  I know he got beaten a couple of times as a novice hurdler, and you’d be disappointed, you’d be worrying that he might not be as good as you thought he was.  But he was still maturing then.  He has settled down at home now a lot, and he was in great form in the lead up to the Gold Cup.”

Then good ground on Friday, and the stars aligned.

“You’d dreaming about a Gold Cup, without really believing that it could ever happen.  I suppose I never really knew what a Gold Cup horse was, I have never had one before.  But the closer the race got, the more nervous I was getting.”

He watched the race from the last fence, as he usually does at Cheltenham.  He may have been able to conseal his nerves from his jockey that morning, but he couldn’t hold onto them as the race got under way. 

The plan was to sit handy, in the first two or three, get the horse into a nice even rhythm, get him jumping, kick on early, and if he’s good enough, he’s good enough.  Don Cossack hardly missed a beat and Cooper was brilliant on him.  When Cue Card crashed out at the third last fence, the pair of them moved up on the outside of Djakadam and hit the front around the home turn.

“Even when he hit the front,” says Elliott, “I was still nervous.  I knew he wouldn’t stop, when he gets into top gear he just doesn’t stop, but even so.  He jumped past me at the last fence, and we were lepping around like eejits, but I was still worried, I was concerned that he wouldn’t duck out or do something stupid.  Then he hit the line.”

He pauses, not for effect, just to search for the right words, to try to explain how he it felt then, how it feels now, less that 24 hours later. 

“It hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Gold Cup-winning trainer.

“I’m not sure that it will ever sink in.”

© The Sunday Times, 20th March 2016