Gordon Elliott (right) with Don Cossack and Simon McGonagle
When top Irish trainer Gordon Elliott says “I’m optimistic, I’m taking the best bunch of horses I’ve ever had to Cheltenham”, it’s time to take note.
Willie Mullins may lead the Irish charge on the Cotswolds this week, but 38-year-old Elliott is a serious second-in-command to the great man.
Many trainers never have five winners at the Festival in their lives, never mind before the age of 38, but Elliott sees the 2016 Cheltenham renewal as the year he might kick on and start to draw down the biggest prizes.
Tiger Roll’s shock win in the Triumph Hurdle two years ago was the only one of Elliott’s victories that came in a Championship race – two were in handicaps and the other two were in amateur riders’ races.
But this time two of those ‘best bunch of horses’ are serious contenders for a brace of the most prestigious events of the week – the RSA chase on Wednesday and the daddy of them all, the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday.
Don Cossack is the favourite for the Gold Cup, as befits his status as the highest-rated chaser in these islands. He has been to the Festival twice, but never won, which is of some concern for Elliott. However, it’s not enough to put him off trumpeting his champion.
“Look, two years ago he made a jumping mistake in the RSA that cost him that chance and last year he hit a fence hard in the Ryanair chase and then got caught in traffic when trying to recover his ground.
“It wasn’t Bryan Cooper’s finest ride that day,” adds Elliott. “He knows that and has learned from it, but we’re going in hopeful of winning the big one this time around. I couldn’t be happier with him.”
Before then, No More Heroes is many people’s idea of an Irish banker in this year’s renewal of the RSA chase on Wednesday.
“No More Heroes has always promised so much for us,” adds the trainer. “Even last year, when he was doing well over hurdles, we couldn’t wait to get him going over the bigger obstacles.
“He’s won his three races this year and looked really classy. More Of That will be hard beaten if he goes for that race, but we’ll take him on.”
The last of those three wins was in the Topaz Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival and Elliott has brought No More Heroes along slowly since then.
“We weren’t tempted to run him again. We gave the horse a couple of easy weeks after that and have brought him on nicely, avoiding a run on really deep, muddy ground that can tire out a horse. He’s got a real chance, no doubt about that.
“I wish the meeting was starting right now for the pair of them – but we’ve got to wait a few days,” Elliott adds, almost wistfully. “You just have to wait for the day.”
And there’a lot of logic to what Elliott is saying, for while Willie Mullins might hope to have four or even five winners on the first day of the festival, that could be a slow one for the Meathman and his best chances come later in the week.
“It’s just the way the schedule of races pans out. What Willie is doing is phenomenal, he sets the bar. We’re chasing him and we’ve had over 100 winners already this year.
As long as I can keep doing what I’m doing I’ll be happy, but, yes, we may have to wait for our winners this year.”
Because of the prominence of Don Cossack and No More Heroes, particularly, Gordon has been in media demand in the last few weeks. He hosted the ladies and gentlemen of the press at his stables two weeks ago and has done a few of the very popular Cheltenham Preview nights that pop up at this time of year.
Elliott is a little ambivalent about them.
“Look, sometimes you’d thinking this is all getting in the way of getting the horses right for Cheltenham and then you think ‘well, none of it would be happening if you hadn’t got good horses that other people gave a real chance of winning’, so I’m learning to go with the flow.”