Gordon Elliott lays down the ground rules for the interview. ‘You can ask me anything and I will be honest with you but I don’t want it to sound like a sob story.’
One of the most successful trainers in the history of jump racing is taking a break from preparing a squad of 55 horses scheduled to represent him at the Cheltenham Festival which starts a week on Tuesday.
It is the most horses he has ever shipped over to contest the biggest meeting in the jumps calendar. They are headed by Cheltenham Gold Cup second favourite Galvin and popular dual Grand National winner Tiger Roll who win, lose or draw will be retired after his attempt to land a record-equalling sixth Festival success when he runs in the Cross Country Chase.
Trainer Gordon Elliott (above) has spoken to Sportsmail about what it was like to be banned by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board after a picture merged of him sitting on a dead horse
It is hard to envisage a situation where Elliott won’t return to Ireland with another clutch of Festival winners. Over four days when the wider media turn their gaze towards racing, the trainer concedes it is also inevitable that what was happening 12 months ago will get aired again despite his desire to move on.
On Wednesday Elliott celebrated his 44th birthday. There was not much joy on his 43rd. Five days earlier a picture taken in 2019 had emerged of him sitting on a horse that had died on the gallops of his stable in County Meath.
The image went viral and the reaction was furious. Elliott’s world caved in. He then appeared before an Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board panel with a question mark hanging over his future. He left with a sixth-month suspension.
The incident cost him some of his best horses, including previously unbeaten Envoi Allen, as they were moved to other stables. Two of them — Quilixios and Sir Gerhard — went on to win at the Cheltenham Festival for training rivals Henry de Bromhead and Willie Mullins. The four horses who triumphed for his stable were credited to Denise Foster, a trainer neighbour who stepped in as caretaker.
The image (above) circled around social media – with people expressing their outrage at Elliott
The last six months of Elliott’s (left) ban were suspended and he was given his license back
Elliott said: ‘I want to move forward now not back — but it was my own fault, my own stupidity.
‘It was a moment of madness. I haven’t tried to hide from it but we are back now and it is good to be training winners.
‘I could understand the public reaction. I knew straight away when I saw the photograph it wasn’t good. I am a human being and I made a mistake.
‘There is not a day when it does not come into my head. It’s something that I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life.’
Elliott is talking on home turf in a pub in Summerhill where he was brought up, the eldest of five children, his father a panel beater and his mother a housewife.
The conversation is punctuated by a steady flow of people wanting to shake his hand or wish him well for Cheltenham. ‘An ordinary man but with nothing ordinary about him,’ is how one old friend describes the man who trained his first Cheltenham Festival winner in 2011 and now has 32 and sits fourth in the all-time list of successful festival trainers. He is the local boy made good who the community is proud of. He sponsors the village football team.
It was the feeling of letting these people down along with his family and staff that hit Elliott hardest.
‘I never realised how in the limelight I was until this happened,’ he said. ‘I just thought I was a normal person. As tough as it was for me, my parents are normal people and they have never experienced anything like this in their lives. For the whole family and the village here in Summerhill it was awful.
‘I let everyone down, my staff, my family, my owners. On the Tuesday (after the picture circulated) when I saw horses leaving the yard it was rough to see lads and lasses in bawling and crying. They adored those horses, minded them like kids.
‘I have a lot of very good friends who are close to me and they never left me for two weeks.
‘I was knocked by it. It is something I have not really spoken about because I don’t want to get too deep or morbid but it did rattle me. I went from being someone who was self-made with a yard of horses and owners to maybe losing it all in hours.’
Elliott spent some time during his suspension staying at an owner’s villa in Portugal and said it was good to get away from the racing bubble. Since he returned to the track in September he has trained 118 jump winners in Ireland and six in Britain.
What also hit him, he says, is that a crass, unthinking act was interpreted by some as a lack of respect for his horses.
‘It did hurt me because I love horses and I love training horses,’ Elliott says. ‘Anyone who comes into my yard or looks at my horses at the races, they are always turned out second to none.’
That love of horses is why he left school aged 15 — ‘I didn’t like sitting in the classroom, my palms would be sweaty and I couldn’t relax’ — and first attempted to become a jockey.
Initially, Elliott’s parents were disappointed by his decision, but that changed when they saw how driven he was to follow his path and how happy it made him.
He rode 46 winners as an amateur jockey but realised he wasn’t good enough to cut it. Plans to become a trainer were honed while working for mentor Martin Pipe, Britain’s 15-time champion trainer who he joined in 1997.
Elliott (right) has said that the incident was a ‘moment of madness’ that the deeply regrets
The trainer also said that he had let ‘everyone down, my staff, my family, my owners’
The first horse he ever ran under rules was at the Festival — Brandon Mountain was pulled up in the 2006 Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle — and he landed the first of his three Grand Nationals with Silver Birch in 2007 aged only 29, having yet to saddle a single winner in his native country.
That schoolboy passion is now extended into constantly improving the facilities at his Cullentra House stables where he trains over 200 horses.
When the bottom fell out of his world Elliott admits he was disappointed by the reaction of some people, but he found out who his true friends were.
They included his jockeys Davy Russell and Jamie Codd, the overwhelming majority of his owners including Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary and his racing manager brother Eddie, fellow trainer Noel Meade and Irish Turf Club doctor Jennifer Pugh.
That included being with him as he watched the 2021 Cheltenham Festival from afar.
Elliott (left) – who is pictured with Tiger Roll – says he will live with it for the rest of his life
Elliott recalled: ‘I watched every race. I watched the first day at home with Davy Russell and Jamie Codd, I went to Eddie O’Leary’s house the second day, back to my own house on the Thursday and Noel Meade’s house on the Friday. It was hard but I was so proud of the job my whole team did. We got messages and letters from people at Cheltenham who said they had behaved brilliantly and the job they did was unbelievable.
‘When Black Tears crossed the line in the Mares’ Hurdle — she would have been my first winner on the Tuesday — I had tears in my eyes. I was so happy for the owners and Denise, who was almost like a mother to all the staff. When Tiger Roll won I cried. I was watching with friends. I was happy but sad.’
One of the horses Elliott had to watch win at the 2021 Festival was Galvin, who had been temporarily shipped out to the Ian Ferguson stable before he won the National Hunt Chase. At the start of the season, Elliott thought the Grand National would be Galvin’s main aim. But the gelding has stepped up again and shown more speed.
Cheltenham Gold Cup talk started after he beat the 2021 Gold Cup runner-up A Plus Tard in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting.
Elliott, who might also be represented by Conflated in the Gold Cup, said: ‘He’s showing a lot more pace. He ticks a lot of boxes. He’s a stayer, that’s what you need to win a Gold Cup.’
Elliott admitted to crying when he saw Tiger Roll win the2021 Cheltenham Festival (above)
But if Tiger Roll can stir the Festival roar one final time then any Elliott tears now would be joyous. He may have trained over 1,500 jumps winners in Ireland, and over 380 in Britain, including 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Don Cossack, but it is the diminutive, tough little gelding who has delivered two of Elliott’s three Grand National winners.
The Peoples’ Horse as he is known, was a four-year-old when he first won at the Festival landing the 2014 Triumph Hurdle.
Since then a glittering record includes two Grand Nationals, the 2017 National Hunt Chase plus the 2018, 2019 and 2021 Cross Country Chases.
The Tiger is 12 now but ‘in great nick’, according to Elliott. He added: ‘He’s a household name. I’ve come to appreciate what he means to so many kids. They come to the yard to see Tiger and have a photo taken with him.
‘The ground is the thing with him. The better the ground, the better he is. He lights up at Cheltenham. If he won, it would be great for the whole country.’
How much it would mean to Elliott on his return to the Cheltenham Festival is probably impossible to express in words.