Sometime between Monday and Friday last week they got together and decided “Gordon’s not really a bad fella, so let’s not be too hard on him”, writes Tony Stafford. You could discern it in the columns of the Racing Post by his day-to-day journalist pals on the racecourse in Ireland as the original abhorrence to first seeing ‘that photo’ was gradually tempered into the “he isn’t really like that” version of the man.
So, by Friday, when the case was finally heard by the IHRB, everyone was patting himself on the back and saying a year ban, suspended for six months was “fair” and had “compassionate undertones”. By the weekend we heard Denise ‘Sneezy’ Foster, 67, who lives down the road and “has known Elliott for many years” was taking over the licence.
Apparently “she’s a legend” and has had ten winners – six Flat and four jumps – over the last five years from her small stable close to Elliott’s Cullentra House yard. If that qualifies her to run a stable which still had the mechanism to continue operations last week, sending out seven winners from 26 runners, including an up-yours four-timer last Monday at Punchestown, is another question.
The enormity of the operation in Co Meath, in the centre of the country, is mind-boggling especially in the context that its boss could often make do with Mrs Thatcher-like amounts of sleep after long sessions of partying and still be ready for the fray at dawn every morning.
It’s time to consider a few numbers. In the latest season, which of course was delayed by the onset of Covid19, Elliott has run 321 individual horses in Ireland. Today at Leopardstown he will send out (remotely I trust) the last six before handing over responsibility to Sneezy, taking his number of runners for the season beyond the 1,000 mark.
They have yielded 155 wins and earned €2.855 million. Over the past five years, 891 Irish wins have brought more than €20 million, only slightly less than the €24 million of his great rival Willie Mullins who this season, from fewer than half the runs, has 139 wins from 183 individual horses. Then there are the training fees on top. Who’ll be getting them?
I was intrigued by the six months suspended part of the IHRB ruling. What would cause its implementation? Would it require a similar offence to be committed in the interim six months? And if there is another similar historical photo in the ether showing him on a different stricken horse would that be the only situation in which the extra six months would take effect?
So let’s be honest. It’s six months from tomorrow taking him to September 8 and, while he does miss Cheltenham, Aintree and the big spring Irish Festival at Punchestown, from that point on, Galway apart, it’s something of a quiet off-season time for the top jumps stables in Ireland.
When Nicky Henderson got his three-month ban in 2011 that ran from July to October and barely ruffled his feathers in practical terms. While unable to go into the stables during that period, he continued to live in the main house and the horses were paraded on the lawn in front of his lounge picture window each morning. Off from July to October when he never has much going on, he was back in time for the first meetings at Kempton. Do the words ‘carve’ and ‘up’ come to mind either side of the Irish Sea?
Elliott will be in situ during his suspension and, while he voluntarily stated he would neither go to any race meeting or point-to-point fixture during the course of the suspension, no doubt he could still offer advice to the new boss.
We like to think that the concept of a punishment suitable to fit the crime is still valid. But when you consider how easy in modern society it is for an unwise word to be regarded as of an offensive nature and enough to earn a prison sentence, the Elliott picture becomes clouded. For a couple of days, outrage was universal around the world and racing’s always delicate position with its vociferous opponents was perilous.
Penalties in horse racing can be draconian. Look, for example, at the case of Charles Byrnes, an acknowledged touch-merchant whose six-month ban for “inexcusable behaviour” and negligence surrounding the running of Viking Hoard at Tramore In October 2018 was confirmed at an appeal last month.
The horse, a drifter from 4-1 to 8-1 before the race, stopped suddenly with seven furlongs to run. He had been laid heavily on Betfair that day and on two further occasions when Byrnes sent him over to race in the UK.
Each time substantial five-figure bets were placed by a third party on Betfair and no connection to Byrnes has been established. The negligence case on the Tramore run was based on the decision of Byrnes and his son to leave the horse unattended for 20 to 25 minutes when they went for their lunch. It was obviously the “suspicious drift” and the big lay bets that alerted Betfair who routinely share such information with the authorities.
Returning to Mr Elliott, such was the disgust at the photo that on the 6pm BBC news last Monday evening, in the headlines, after the news of Covid and the rest, they turned to sport. The first and only headline item was that picture. I think Elliott was very fortunate that he didn’t get the full year the committee suggested it meted out.
Nicky Henderson’s three-month summer sojourn didn’t harm his career – if anything it had more negatives for his then two assistants Tom Symonds and Ben Pauling when they left to start their own training businesses.
So suggestions that Elliott will be in any way harmed by his own gentle sabbatical are probably over-stating the potential impact. Gigginstown, his biggest supporter, quickly stood firmly behind him and they are no longer recruiting from the point-to-point field, so he’s not missing as much there either.
Meanwhile, an inexperienced amateur rider felt the wrath of an Irish stewards’ panel at Leopardstown yesterday. Young Aaron Fahey, riding the newcomer Lake Winnipesaukee in the concluding bumper, was carried to the front of the field by his hard-pulling mount after four furlongs when the saddle slipped.
The horse continued going easily miles clear of the field until turning for home when he took the wrong course, going to the outside of a rail. Fahey, who has ridden three winners from 11 rides this season, told the stewards he was very tired and unable fully to control the horse which his father trains. They ruled him “negligent” and banned him for 14 days.
Clearly, it’s not what you do: it’s who you are.
Denise Foster won’t be going to Cheltenham with the Cullentra House horses, but never mind Sneezy, nor am I. Neither will French Aseel, who has had a setback – good job I switched Triumph horses to Tritonic (cough) - but then Sneezy still has some left in that race even after the Cheveley Park contingent jumped ship.
At last count her new stable has 111 total entries at the Festival many with multiple targets. I’m sure while she won’t be there she’ll be checking that Weatherbys have the correct bank details to send her the trainer’s percentages, which must come to a nice few quid.
One race she will have to watch closely is the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle on the final day. Of the stable’s 34 last-day entries, a dozen are in the race Elliott loves to win in homage to the time he spent at Pond House in his formative years before becoming a trainer.
Another Cheltenham absentee will be Alan Spence who will have no runners at the meeting with On The Blind Side waiting for Aintree. One race he will have in his sights before then, though, is the Dubai World Cup.
Spence part-owned and bred Salute The Soldier, who won four of 14 races when trained by Clive Cox, only once finishing out of the frame. The partners were elated when he was sold at the end of his four-year-old career for 380,000gns after reaching a BHA handicap mark of 104.
Bahraini owner-trainer Fawzi Nass was the buyer and, transferred to his Dubai Carnival stable, the gelding won twice at up to Grade 3 level in his first season there. This time round it has been two wins from three runs for the six-year-old, first a Group 2 and then on Super Saturday last weekend he made all to win Round 3 of the Al Maktoum Challenge, his first at Group 1 level.
I tried in vain looking on the Emirates Racing Authority site to see whether there’s a breeder’s prize for the winner. With $12 million to go round there ought to be and I’m sure Alan would have been checking even as his great favourite went over the line on Saturday. If not, he and former co-owning partner Mr Hargreaves might ask Fawzi for a hand-out should the Soldier beat off the American dirt stars on March 27 at Meydan.