PAT KEANE: Gordon Elliott a man on a mission

It might be an exaggeration to say it represented a changing of the guard, but that unprecedented six-timer by Gordon Elliott at Navan last Sunday was some statement of intent.

In Monday’s Racing Post, Elliott was quoted as saying: “I haven’t a hope in hell of winning the (trainers’) title,’’ but if that’s what he truly believes then, you suspect, is on his own.

Irish National Hunt racing, for a long time, has been crying out for a credible challenger to Willie Mullins and there is no doubt one has finally arrived.

In Aidan O’Brien’s early years at Ballydoyle there was much discussion as to how bad it was for Irish flat racing to have one organisation so dominant.

I did not subscribe to that view at all, on the basis flat racing in Ireland should never be allowed to return to mediocrity.

There were periods when our Group races were constantly being mopped up by division two horses from Britain.

Those days are long gone, with O’Brien and Ballydoyle having raised the bar higher than it has ever been in this country.

The likes of Dermot Weld, John Oxx and Jim Bolger met the battle head-on and the standard of flat racing in Ireland now is second to none, with plenty of younger trainers coming through the ranks as well to bolster the game.

Indeed, it is a long time since we heard anyone offer an opinion that what Ballydoyle-Coolmore continues to do is in any way negative.

Willie Mullins revolutionised National Hunt racing in Ireland, but, in doing so, essentially left everyone else trailing miles behind.

It was great for Mullins, and all those associated with him, but the game had become completely lopsided and almost entirely predictable. Just as the flat had developed, it was crying out for some balance.

Thankfully, Elliott, who has literally come up out of the ground like a mushroom, is in the process of giving us just that.

It is simply amazing to see how far he has travelled in such a short space of time. In his first season, he won the Aintree Grand National in 2007 with Silver Birch, becoming the youngest trainer, at 29, to do so. At that stage, he had yet to train a winner in Ireland.

Now the National has been won by many trainers who enjoyed a lovely day in the sun and then made very little progress in their careers subsequently.

I’d imagine most of us just gave a cursory glance in Elliott’s direction, in the wake of Silver Birch, and then expected him to take his place among the vast majority of his new colleagues, the journeymen.

The season after Silver Birch, Elliott trained eight winners in Britain and six in Ireland, but there was no real indication at all as to what was coming down the tracks.

Year on year, however, Elliott has become a growing force, with the massive backing of Gigginstown the major factor in his seemingly inevitable rise to the very top. Four of his six winners at Navan carried the famous Gigginstown colours.

To train six winners, from seven races, at a meeting in Ireland is extraordinary, but to do so on Navan’s biggest day of the season made it even more special. On top of that all of the six contests were fiercely competitive.

Add in the fact Elliott saddled 25 runners on Sunday, and eleven in the featured Ladbrokes’ Troytown Handicap Chase, and what you are dealing with here is a man who is obviously on a mission.

As of now, Elliott is the clear leader in the trainers’ championship, with in excess of €1.9m to his credit. Mullins has won €1.4m, with Henry de Bromhead a highly respectable third on €781,000.

What might be particularly interesting looking ahead is whether Elliott’s relentless onslaught will see Mullins change the manner, at least a little, in which he does things.

Mullins begins every campaign the same way, slowly, slowly and then gradually steps it up, until eventually his horses become almost unbeatable.

That has proven more than adequate to dismiss all opposition. But Elliott has been flat to the board since the start of the season and his methods are just different.

On a related theme, it is worth noting the massive amount of money already won by our leading three trainers. And further down the list there is little shabby either about what has arrived in the direction of Noel Meade, Jessica Harrington, Joseph O’Brien and John Ryan.

Compare that with Britain and it makes somewhat astonishing reading. Paul Nicholls leads the field on £900,000, with second placed Colin Tizzard on £740,000. Brexit has ensured that there is no longer a huge difference between sterling and the euro, so comparison is reasonable.

Tizzard has Cue Card, Thistlecrack, Native River and Fox Norton, but has won just about the same amount of money as de Bromhead.

During the Celtic Tiger years one racecourse manager in Ireland reportedly remarked that: “There is no point looking for sponsorship because the game is awash with money.’’ Does the game continue to be awash with money? Draw your own conclusions.

What we can say for certain is that a government sponsored industry just makes the game so easy and that’s why the controversial reappointment of Brian Kavanagh as chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland sent out all of the wrong signals.

It’s a story that has died down somewhat of late, but I’ll bet it hasn’t gone away and will rear its head again, sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, racing will power merrily ahead and pray that a left-wing government, or at least a left-wing led government, does not have its wicked way any time soon. Now if Trump can do it…!


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