Involved in an epic duel for the Irish Trainers Championship, Gordon Elliott is having a season to remember.
With a stable full of talent, he’s been capturing prestigious prizes throughout the winter, and now has his sights set on the spring festivals. Victories have certainly not been confined to handicaps, but it is a sphere that he excels, and when looking forward to Cheltenham in March, a decent Elliott handicap haul seems likely.
Diamond King did the business at Prestbury Park last March, when winning the Coral Cup at odds of 12/1. Given a cool ride by Davy Russell, he swept to the front at the last to win comfortably. Elliott also struck with Festival regular, Cause Of Causes. Winning for the second time at Cheltenham’s showpiece, he’s a horse to follow at the ‘Home Of Jump Racing’. On this occasion, it was victory in the Fulke Walwyn Handicap Chase. He didn’t just win it, he romped to a 12-length success at an attractive price of 9/2. He could turn up in the Cross Country this time, and had a spin round on Trials Day at the end of January.
Taglietelle, Bless The Wings and Noble Endeavor all went close to adding valuable handicap prizes at the Festival in 2015, and in 2014 Bayan and especially Cause Of Causes, were unlucky not to hit the bullseye for Elliott and his team.
There’s little doubt that Ireland’s current leading trainer will be sending a battalion across the Irish Sea for an assault on graded races as well as handicaps. Outlander is fancied to go well in the Gold Cup, and over the weekend Mega Fortune looked every inch a realistic contender for the Triumph Hurdle.
Arguably the yard’s leading Cheltenham hope is Death Duty, who looks likely to head for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. We’ve not seen him since early January, but he’s looked one of Ireland’s best novice hurdlers over the winter. Apple’s Jade is another with a leading chance to scoop a major pot in the Cotswolds. She’s top class, and is likely to contest the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, where she’ll probably clash with Vroum Vroum Mag.
But back to the handicaps, and a host of potential challengers for honours. It was interesting to see A Toi Phil back among the ‘big boys’ at Leopardstown. There’s no doubting that this fella is a touch below top-class, but he remains reasonably handicapped going forward. Better ground at Cheltenham will not be ideal, but he coped well enough when winning a valuable handicap at Leopardstown last month. The stiff finish at Prestbury Park may well make a trip around two and a half miles ideal.
Another novice chaser that looks to be on a fair mark is Ball D’Arc. He won at Fairyhouse in January, and has now had eight runs over fences since September 2016. The Grand Annual looks a realistic proposition, and he is currently best-priced 16s for the festival finale.
Mick Jazz lowered the colours of highly touted Cilaos Emery last time at Punchestown, and rather than a shot at the Supreme, Elliott hinted at the County Hurdle for this progressive son of Blue Bresil. The stallion is responsible for Le Prezien and Ibis Du Rheu, the latter a winner at The Festival last year. He looked particularly tough and gutsy last time out, and should Elliott let him take his chance in the County, he would surely have a great chance.
Another pair of novice hurdlers that I’ll be keeping a close eye on are The Storyteller and Runfordave. I fancy both are just short of Grade 1 standard, but should they line-up in something such as the Coral Cup, they’d be just the type to go close. Neither is short of speed, and both have been pitched against the best over the winter. They both hold entries in the Albert Bartlett, but may be just short of the class needed to capture that one.
It will come as no surprise to see Gordon Elliott having his most successful Cheltenham Festival to date, but as ever it’s finding the winners that is the difficult part. He has a powerful team at all levels, and though there’s no Don Cossack this time round, that shouldn’t stop the Co. Meath trainer from having a fabulous four days.