Gordon Elliott has had an outstanding season, capped by the triumph of Don Cossack in the Gold Cup.
The Cheltenham Festival proved a huge success for the County Meath trainer, with wins for Diamond King and Cause Of Causes adding to that of the ‘Don’. Prize money is now in excess of €2.3m, and he has proved the only trainer in Ireland to get within spitting distance of Mr Mullins. He now turns his attention to Aintree, a meeting that proved extremely rewarding last year.
It was at the Grand National meeting 12 months that Don Cossack truly announced himself as one of the leading staying chasers. He put in a devastating performance to win the Grade 1 Betfred Melling Chase. He put 26 lengths between himself and the runner-up Cue Card, though Tizzard’s fella was admittedly not at his best.
There was also a cracking double on the opening day with victories for Clarcam and Taglietelle. The former impressed when winning the Grade 1 Manifesto Novices’ Chase whilst the latter lumped plenty of weight to victory in the Grade 3 three-mile handicap hurdle. Elliott looks set to launch a sizable raiding party from across the Irish Sea, with plenty of horses capable of striking gold.
Hopes on the opening day lie with the talented yet frustrating chaser Bright New Dawn. On the face of it he looks to have plenty on his plate in the Betfred Red Rum Handicap Chase. He has to give weight to all bar one of his rivals, and odds of 14/1 look a fair reflection of his chances. He ran a stinker at the Cheltenham Festival, though bounced back to some kind of form when winning last time at Clonmel. This two-mile contest on lively ground may prove a little on the sharp side, though if he’s on a ‘going day’ it would come as no surprise to see him go very close.
The opener on day two sees Elliott represented by another carrying the famous Gigginstown silks. Tycoon Prince has not been sighted since chasing home Bellshill at Navan back in December. Better ground and a wind operation may well prove key to his performance, and he is known to be highly thought of by the yard. He won three of his four bumpers before the switch to hurdles, and though his future lies over fences, he has the opportunity to sign off in style in this 2m4f handicap hurdle.
The same connections are responsible for Ball D’Arc in the Grade 1 Top Novices’ Hurdle. He’s hard to fancy in what’s likely to be a tasty renewal. The Supreme winner Altior skips the race but Nicky Henderson looks set to run Buveur D’Air with Alan King looking at this for Yanworth in the hope of dodging a rematch with Yorkhill.
Elliott looks likely to let Clarcam take his chance in the Melling Chase with Vautour a possible opponent. As mentioned earlier in the piece, Clarcam was successful at the meeting 12 months ago, and though his form has been incredibly disappointing so far this winter, I still find it incredible that he is priced up at 50/1. Take Vautour out of the field and you are left with a handful of exposed performers. If running to his best, Elliott’s horse is more than capable of finishing second.
One that arrives at Aintree in tip-top shape is his novice hurdler Fagan. A 33/1 runner-up in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham, he looks set to run in a competitive looking Sefton Novices’ Hurdle. The grey has been a model of consistency throughout his brief career, with top two finishes in his last eight appearances. As long as Cheltenham didn’t take too much out of him, he looks sure to run another cracker.
Another that performed admirably at Cheltenham was Gigginstown’s classy novice hurdler Tombstone. He lacked the gears to land a blow on the front three in the Supreme Novices’ though stayed on well to snatch fourth. He’ll be stepping up in trip to tackle the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle on Saturday, and the extra half mile should suit. He certainly has place claims.
One Elliott contender that I’m certainly interested in is The Game Changer, who looks set to contest the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase. He showed his liking for Aintree when second at last year’s National meeting, and after a long break ran a race full of promise in the Arkle. The hill at Cheltenham would not have suited this strong traveller, who needs to be produced late in his races. He’ll run a big race at Aintree.
Whether Prince Of Scars is allowed to run is questionable. He’s entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle and has looked a hugely talented horse, though seemingly best on testing ground. He defeated Alpha Des Obeaux last time, and that form received a huge boost at Cheltenham. If he was to turn up he has to be considered a major contender, though nothing will beat Thistlecrack.
So finally to the main event, and Elliott’s Grand National hope Ucello Conti. Formerly trained in France, the eight-year-old has run three times since the switch to Ireland. Elliott won the race with Silver Birch in 2007, and almost won the Irish version just over a week ago with Bless The Wings.
This fella had plenty of chase experience in France and has run well to be placed in two hugely competitive staying events over the winter in Ireland. Some have questioned his ability to get the national trip, having faded late on in both the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Leopardstown and the Thyestes Chase at Gowran. However, those runs came on very testing ground, and with a more conservative ride on a sounder surface, he looks a real contender.
He carries the familiar Munir and Souede colours having been owned in France by Simon Munir. Much will depend on how he settles, having occasionally looked a little keen. Clearly if he gets ‘buzzy’ during the preliminaries his chances will be compromised.
“He lost his way and became disappointing, and the last roll of the dice was to go to see if Gordon Elliott could rekindle him a bit”, said racing manager Anthony Bromley. “Gordon had him over a year before he got him on the track. He's been a bit of a surprise package. Daryl Jacob rides and this horse is a half-brother to Silviniaco Conti.” Jacob of course won the race on Neptune Collonges back in 2012.
With an incredibly tight battle for the Trainer’s Championship continuing to play out, it’s likely that Mullins and Nicholls will glean much of the attention during the three days. However, Gordon Elliott has rapidly become a potent force in National Hunt racing, and he looks set to play a leading role in yet another major spring festival.