Grand National - At The Races

Gordon Elliott

    Two-time National-winning trainer Gordon Elliott spoke exclusively to Declan Rix about the great race, Silver Birch and this year’s favourite and reigning champion, Tiger Roll.

The Grand National at Aintree has always and still remains one of the most special events in horse racing. It’s a race that captures the imagination of the public, not just domestically but also on a world stage. Last year, circa 600million people watched the race that Tiger Roll won, giving Gordon Elliott his second National victory at the age of 40.

Elliott is a self-made phenomenon who has not just tasted success but devoured it at the highest level; from a Gold Cup with the beautiful Don Cossack or a Royal Ascot victory with Commissioned in the Queen Alexandra Stakes, Elliott just has the knack of producing winners across codes and levels. 

For a man who didn’t know what a horse was until he was “10 or 12” years of age, and the son of a panel beater and housewife, Elliott’s rise in a game that can be strongly associated with nepotism is a real rags to riches story, and a source of inspiration for anybody in any walk of life.

Elliott has previously jokingly pondered if it was a mistake or an accident he got involved with racing, but his hard work, nous and talent was there to be seen from an early stage – and those have been the deciding factors in his meteoric rise.

Silver Birch’s 2007 National success catapulted the Meath man into the mainstream in his first year training, at a time when he still hadn’t even trained a domestic winner in Ireland; that maiden was actually broken three weeks after his wonderful day on Merseyside at Kilbeggan when Toran Road won for a syndicate that included Elliott’s father and uncles; the latter bunch of men accredited with igniting the trainer’s interests in racing when bringing him to point-to-points as a child.

At the time of Silver Birch’s victory, Elliott (29) was the youngest ever trainer to win the National, a record he still holds, but business didn’t pick up immediately in the wake of such a huge victory, Elliott saying, “It definitely didn’t give us instant success, we didn’t get too many horses out of it. I suppose it got our name out there a little bit more, that’s it, although it was a great leg up to get.”

Silver Birch wins the Grand National for Gordon Elliott and Robbie Power
A young Gordon Elliott (left) helps lead in Silver Birch after they won the National

Getting a horse like Silver Birch a year previous at the Doncaster Spring Sale for £20,000 was also a leg up in itself. Of course, those words are tinged with hindsight, as are the following, but the then nine-year-old was a previous Welsh National and Becher Chase winner and two seasons previous to joining Elliott was ante-post favourite for the Grand National before injury ruled him out.

Indeed, those injuries certainly proved to be part of the bargain buy for owner Brian Walsh who said when he got the horse back to Ireland was “in a right old state” due to tendon issues but thanks to vet Michael Sadler, who injected his legs, and gave him time off, Silver Birch came right and “never gave a bother after.”

What I hadn’t realised was Elliott was part of the team that bought Silver Birch, “I was there at the sales and we picked him out. We wanted a horse for the cross-country races and thankfully it worked out great – we were very lucky to get him and to be fair, when he arrived into me he was immaculate. We were just lucky to get our hands on him.”

At this stage of the conversation Elliott broke away from the call, with horses clearly in the background. By pure chance, the trainer was interrupting the retirement of his former National winner, “I’m actually looking at Silver Birch here out in the field, we need to take him in and do a few things because he’s going to the English National to parade.”

At 22, it’s great to hear Silver Birch is still enjoying his well-earned retirement. The former National winner will celebrate his birthday on Saturday, the day of the National, having been foaled on April 6th 1997.

Of 2007, when pushed on the memories and nerves of that great day with the horse he stood looking at, Elliott’s recalling’s were surprisingly nonchalant, not in a bad way – they sounded honest – it was maybe just a sign of his temperament at the time, after all as a 33/1 shot trained by a ’rookie’ there was no significant pressure.

“Ahh, I was pretty easy-going to be honest. It was great to have a runner in the race, but I didn’t really think about it. I’d be telling you a lie if I thought he’d win it though, but having run so well in the cross-country races I thought he’d have an each-way chance if everything went right”.

It seemed nerves were a little different last year before Tiger Roll’s success however, it sounded like some tension creeped in, and why wouldn’t there be when you consider where Elliott was with Silver Birch to where the trainer is presently and doing it all with a three-time Cheltenham Festival winner in Tiger Roll for Gigginstown House Stud. In his first National success, Elliott employed two other people, one is still with him, Shane McCann. Currently, that number is up to “55 or 60” in a state of the art, purpose-built yard training for the biggest names in racing.

“You’d be a little bit nervous, just before they go to the start, just hoping it all goes right before the race, but that’s it”; the words of man knowing he can do no more and his work is done, before handing over to the jockey. “No stone unturned” is a phrase Elliott often uses when talking of his “racing hero” Martin Pipe, given his success Elliott didn’t go around Pond House stables with his eyes closed when working there and likely has a similar approach to Pipe, hence his major success.

Relive Tiger Roll's exciting 2018 Grand National victory

Elliott’s achievements and rise in the game will be evident before the National is even run on Saturday, with the trainer possibly saddling up to 12 horses, potentially breaking his former mentor Martin Pipe’s record of 10.

Elliott’s thoughts on handling any potential extra pressure with a People’s Horse in Tiger Roll this week were unfounded from his point of view, in the face of his inmate likely going off the shortest priced favourite (7/2) for the race since Red Rum, in a quest to emulate the Ginger McCain great in winning back-to-back Nationals. “No, there’s no pressure. The people have (taken him in) to be fair, but all I can do is my best and get him there on the day. We are looking forward to running him”.

There was a real sense of Elliott knowing what this little son of Authorized has achieved and done for the yard, but he wasn’t about to get too sentimental. When pushed on the most special horse he has had through his hands, the trainer was reluctant to give Tiger Roll top spot just yet, although, he did say “If he wins a second National, definitely, he will be.”

He continued, “He’s been a horse of a lifetime, we are very lucky to have him. He’s been so good to the yard. A Triumph Hurdle winner, he gave Lisa O’Neill her first Cheltenham winner, Keith O’Donoghue his first Cheltenham winner and Davy Russell his first National. He’s been unbelievable.”

The great story of Tiger Roll and Gordon Elliott may continue on Saturday. The horse only bought by Gigginstown to represent them in a Triumph Hurdle once upon a time, trained by a man raised by a panel beater and housewife; it has been some run from man and horse, and it would be great to see another chapter added to the remarkable careers of Gordon Elliott and Tiger Roll.