The Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh combination has been the top dog at Cheltenham over the last four years but new kids on the block could take leading trainer and jockey honours at the Festival this year. Gordon Elliott and Bryan Cooper have the ammunition to deliver at the jumps meeting that matters most and some key absentees should make the task easier than in recent years.
Elliott is odds-on to win the trainer’s championship in Ireland this season for the first time. Circumstances have worked against Mullins and Cheltenham could prove to be a microcosm of the whole season. Gigginstown Hose Stud which is owned by Michael O’Leary who founded the budget airline Ryanair are now major players in Irish jumps racing and Elliott is their go-to man after a falling out with Mullins.
Gigginstown removed 60 horses from the Mullins stable last year after a dispute over training fees. There were stories that Mullins suggested a price rise which was not unreasonable. Clearly O’Leary understands the value of a Euro and removed the horses and there was no compromise. His syndicate distributed the horses amongst a number of trainers in Ireland but Elliott was the main beneficiary.
In what could be described as an ‘annus horribilis’ for Mullins he lost Vautour fatally after a freak accident in a field and three other superstars will miss Cheltenham this year, all owned by Rich Ricci even though they are in the name of his wife. Annie Power, Min and Faugheen will miss the festival and all three would have started favourite or second favourite for their chosen races.
Mullins is still sending a team of about 40 horses this year and he has the favourite or joint favourite in 7 of the 28 races over the four days of the meeting. Douvan is his banker, Melon is close to favouritism for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle that opens the meeting and Djakadam and Vroum Vroum Mag are leading hopes. Yorkhill was one of the best novice hurdlers last season and will be difficult to beat in his targeted race.
Elliott is anticipating having about 30 runners at Cheltenham which would be his biggest team to date. The trainer won three races at the Festival last time, including Don Cossack who won the Gold Cup but that horse has now been retired and cannot defend the crown. Elliott will have entries in Outlander and Don Poli in the race, both owned by Gigginstown and the latter was moved from the Mullins stable.
Don Poli has won over hurdles and fences at the Festival and was third in the Gold Cup last season. He looks a great fit for the Grand National but O’Leary took exception to his allocated weight and the horse will not run at Aintree. The Gold Cup now becomes a target, a race Mullins has not won. It would be ironic if Don Poli won the race and Djakadam finished second. That would be five second places for Mullins horses over the last five years including three with Djakadam.
Elliott believes Death Duty is the best novice hurdler he has trained and the horse is a strong favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. Augusta Kate and Lets Dance are batting for Mullins in the race but on form and ratings Death Duty will be tough to beat and could put a win on the board for Elliott. He has a number of good prospects in the graded races and will send over some unexposed horses for the handicaps so could well accumulate enough wins to be the top trainer.
In terms of the opposition for Elliott aside from Mullins Nicky Henderson’s team is more about quality than quantity and Paul Nicholls does not have any standout horses for Cheltenham. Colin Tizzard has several Grade 1 performers running but does not have the numbers to outscore every other trainer, including Elliott who can be the leading trainer at a meeting where he has trained eight winners in total.
The trainer’s prospects are linked to Cooper’s who has the pick of the Gigginstown horses but beating the Mullins and Walsh axis will not be easy. The absence of Barry Geraghty due to an injury sustained at Kempton opens up opportunities for other jockeys but Cooper and Walsh are unlikely to be freed from their retainers to ride for close opponents. The power of the Gigginstwon operation can see Elliott and Cooper have more winners than their contemporaries in the training and riding ranks.