Ambition can be exciting. It crackles like a force field around Gordon Elliott as he patrols the barns and breeze blocks and swept concrete footings of his ever burgeoning training base in the green fields of County Meath. But it should not surprise. The world got enough of that six years ago when Gordon won the Grand National with Silver Birch. Almost nobody knew who he was.
The clue to the future was in the one who did. Gordon Elliott spotted Martin Pipe through all the back-slapping and photo-snapping of that Aintree winners enclosure, opened his arms and hugged him in recognition and gratitude. “He was a great lad,” said Martin of the young amateur whom he had put up on Irish Bleu to win a chase at Cheltenham in 2002. “He was a good rider but his weight was always going to be a problem. He was very interested in all that was going on and was keen to learn everything. He said he was going back to train and we wished him well. He certainly had some talent and was very dedicated to it.”
Yet while the couple of years that Elliott spent with Pipe in his early twenties and that victory at Cheltenham might have been the most obvious links to success, the roots reach right back to what, in racing terms, might have seemed an unlikely beginning. “I came from nothing,” says Gordon who has now left the 11 stone riding days of Iris Bleu some way down the scales. “We lived in a little house ten miles from here at Summerhill. My father was a panel beater but he and my mother are my biggest supporters. I didn’t grow up with anything but I didn’t find it lacking. I wasn’t much into school but Jason Maguire was and is my best friend and we used to muck around together on ponies. One of my uncle’s had a point to pointer with Tony Martin who trained nearby and I was with him on and off for twelve years.”
The news that both the master horseman Tony Martin and the legendary Martin Pipe were amongst Gordon’s mentors begins to deepen an understanding of this outwardly so unpretentious 35 year old whose triumph with Silver Birch made him the youngest trainer to saddle a Grand National winner. Jason Maguire had seen the signs even in those early larking days of boyhood. “There were a group of us knocking around the local shows and point to points,” he said on Thursday, “there would be Gordon’s brother Joey, his cousin Bobby McNally, our mates Shane McCann and Simon McGonagle who is now head man at the yard. It was a lot of fun but Gordon was always very driven. He had a little pony called Princess that used to win plenty of jumping prizes but he also had a little black terrier called Max who would come in and chase the pair of them round the course.”
“I definitely expected him to go training,” continues Maguire who as a jockey had his own moment of Aintree triumph with Ballabriggs in 2011. “Before I went across to England he was messing around with a few horses for point to points. Besides being heavy he had a couple of injuries when he was riding, including breaking his pelvis. But he was that driven and had learnt a lot from Tony Martin and Martin Pipe, so I always thought he would make it. In 2007 I rode Silver Birch to be second for him in the Cross Country at The Cheltenham Festival but in the National I had to ride Idle Talk for Donald McCain. I got unseated and Robbie Power gave Silver Birch a great spin to win it. Many people must have thought it some fluke but you could soon see that Gordon would make it.”
The need to prove himself still lies deep in the Elliott psyche. “Of course you could say that Silver Birch won the Grand National partly by accident because our aim had been for the Cross Country races,” says Gordon. “And as he had won a Welsh Grand National for Paul Nicholls some people would think that all we had done is get him right again. But while I was too heavy I did ride 200 point to point winners and forty or fifty winners under rules, I wasn’t stupid.” If there is a challenge in that statement, Gordon’s restless, quick fire tones swiftly move on to a sobering anecdote about his very first runner in England.
“It was a horse called Brandon Mountain in The Fred Winter at the 2006 Cheltenham Festival. Martin Pipe came up and said ‘what are you doing here?’ All proud like, I told him I had a runner. I never forget what he told me: ‘ you should keep your horses in the worst company, yourself in the best.’ So basically he was saying I should be going to Sedgefield where I could have won a race instead of going to Cheltenham to have a runner at the Festival. It was great to have a runner at the Festival, happy days, but it was 100-1 and was pulled up before the fourth.”
“At that stage I had a dozen horses and a couple of Polish lads both called Jacob.
My horses could only finish fifth or sixth in Ireland and I had to think where could I win with them to put my name around. If I could find a race in England for them I would have to take it. In the summer of 2006 I won three races with Arresting at Perth and Newton Abbot. I then thought it better to target the north because you would not meet the Pipes and Nicholls and Hendersons, and Jason could often ride them. If you want to be the best you need to use the best that ‘s why I would go for him or McCoy or Dickie Johnson who rode that first winner for me on Arresting.”
“The season after Silver Birch,” he continues. “I had eight winners in England to six in Ireland, and then for a while I had thirty or forty a year over there. I had made a lot of English contacts and even thought of going over to England to train. But something always stuck with me about proving myself in Ireland. We still go to England when a race fits, we have had fourteen there this time and are only playing at it. But the real focus is over here. Willie Mullins is a genius and a real gentleman. We are second to him at the moment. I am not saying we can match him but in ten years who knows what we could do.”
18 months ago, as proof of his intentions, Gordon Elliott left the original rented yard and moved some five miles to the 70 acres of Cullentra House which comprised a plain, pebble- dash farm house, some green fields and a few very basic farm buildings. The place is still very much a work in progress with another 10 stable barn in construction but the trainer is at pains to stress that the move is to improve not change his system.
“At my last place we had 60 boxes, now we have 90, ” said Gordon shrugging away the affections of a giant Great Dane called Teddy. “There we had one horse walker, here we have three. They had just two turn out paddocks we now have seven. But I was still very nervous about moving because I have seen so many trainers have problems coming to terms with their new location. That’s why I have put in the same gallop and operate just the same system. We keep it simple and stick to the old routine.”
In groups of 15 to 18 the horses have a warm up trot and then hack round a four and a half furlong circuit of Wexford sand just as they had at the previous yard. “As this is a Monday morning,” said Gordon last week, “they won’t be doing a lot. But the sand makes them work and you can get them very fit on it. Here we also have a six and half furlong woodchip with a bit of a hill on it where we can really let them stride. It’s still early days but it is all going well and we just try to keep improving ourselves and the horses.”
One of the best examples of improving the latter was soon striding up the woodchip towards us. Roi Du Mee might have been outgunned at Haydock yesterday but last time out, four years and thirty two races since he came over from France, he posted a career best effort when winning his first Grade One victory in the Champion Chase at Downroyal. “He’s not really a Grade One horse either in what he has done or to look at,” said Gordon of the busy little horse who loves to burn things up from the front. “But he’s in such good form that we might as well have a go at the big ones now. We would not have a chance when it comes to Cheltenham.”
When Roi Du Mee returned to the stables he like the others was hosed down, rugged up and then put out in the field for an hour. In all, forty eight horses had a paddock trip that morning. “I think it makes a big difference for them,” explains Gordon. “Of course in the very wet weather it becomes more difficult. But we have this dry road down the side of the paddocks that makes taking them to and from much easier. Getting their heads down and cropping grass is very good for them, and being able to move after exercise has to be a help.”
The paddock railing is white-tape functional not post-and-rail traditional, but this is a place where practicality runs a long way ahead of aesthetics and the essence of good sense is never better displayed than in one of the largest wash down areas you will ever see on your travels. There are no less than five wide berths equipped with large yellow hoses and set on sloping rubberised concrete so that every horse can be completely cleaned without the slipping, pawing frustrations that you often see as riders wait their turn in the queue. To non-equestrian readers it may seem a little thing but anyone in stables will know the godsend of it.
“We are trying to add something every year,” said Gordon, pointing to a cleared area next to the furthest barn that is the intended site for a swimming pool. “But I am happy with where we are. We have some great English owners as well as the best Irish ones and we are getting a better type of horse. What we have to do is to hit some of the biggest targets with a horse like this one.” We have reached the big bay shape of Barry Connell’s Mount Benbulben who took Grade One status at Punchestown in April and has the King George at Kempton on his Boxing Day agenda. “It’s his jumping that lets him down” explains Gordon of the stupid blunder which got rid of Danny Mullins in Roi Du Mee’s race at Downroyal. “If that would hold up he would have a massive chance at Kempton, a massive chance.”
Such heady thoughts are the instant delights on stable tours but longer term fulfilment is likely to come from the trainer’s very evident enthusiasm on his “youth policy.” The newest inmates are eleven purchases fresh from the Tattersalls “Horses in Training” sales. “They are all going well,” says Gordon of the collection as they canter by without showing any of the embarrassment we might have at still sporting catalogue numbers across the tops of our bottoms. “They have all been schooled and are jumping great. I like to get on with them and then ease off once they have understood it.”
The schooling lane is handily placed on the way back from the gallop and every horse in the yard has a quick pop over the jumps every Wednesday provided the trainer is about. As he talked on Monday his brother Joe and cousin Bobby McNally put a couple of horses through jumping instruction without any of the fuss that sometimes accompanies such activities. It hardly needs Gordon to tell you that this is a close nit as well as ambitious operation. “A lot of us have grown up together,” explains the trainer, “so we are very much a team. You cannot do it all by yourself. If you see Paul Nicholls, he always has good assistants around him. You have to delegate Simon (McGonagle) and I have grown up together and so he knows exactly how I think. If I am away I can be sure everything is 100%.”
The emphasis on youth even extends to what must be termed as the nursery class – sixteen jumping bred three year olds without numbers on their rumps but infinite potential above their handsome if still slightly babyish heads. They are all part of Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown empire, bought with the long term in mind but set to have their first education in point to points under Gordon Elliott’s banner. It is a replica of a similar system which the O’Learys have with Pat Doyle down in Thurles to race the southern point to point circuit before returning, as Elliott’s will, to Gigginstown for their summer break and later allocation to individual trainers.
To avoid thoughts of “spoilt goods” it is agreed that Gordon will receive none of his own batch of point to pointers but will have the pick from Pat Doyle. The plan, which ran successfully for the first time last season, is welcomed by Gordon. “Gigginstown are great owners and this fills my boxes and keeps us going. They first sent me a horse in 2008 and after a month I had to ring them up and tell them it was wrong in the wind. I was very nervous about giving bad news but Eddie (O’Leary the racing manager) said ‘oh that’s all right. We have just bought a horse off Barry Hills, it will be with you next week.’ The horse was Tharawaat who won five races for us. Happy days.”
Good times beckon but they are unlikely to be taken for granted. “Gordon has made remarkable progress,” says Eddie O’Leary. “He is an extremely honest hardworking guy. He trains with a natural instinct and always has a plan up ahead. I don’t want to compare them but the only man who thinks like him is Willie Mullins.”