It is the third week of our big Cheltenham countdown at GG, which means we are only five weeks away from kick off.
As Joe Napier continues to look into the top modern trainers at the Cheltenham Festival, it is the turn of Ireland’s currently perennial number two, Gordon Elliott, who he analyses in the search for winners.
We have so far dealt with giants, but while we may now delve into the realms of men for this third column, Gordon Elliott still stands above all but four trainers in the pantheon of Cheltenham Festival winners. He boasts 37 in all, a number that would have been five greater but for some untimely wrongdoing prior to the 2021 meeting.
His history and reputation may have been tarnished by those events, but it is indisputable that his 2021 absence has had a knock-on effect on the yard’s success. In 2017 and 2018, Elliott was top trainer at the meeting, rattling off a combined 14 winners at that time, while he also sent out seven winners in 2020. Willie Mullins, who this column first analysed, only beat him to top trainer that year on runner-up count-back.
In the two years since, he has still managed to send out five winners, but the strike rate has faltered. Then again, this is a man who built from precious little to become a powerhouse as great as those of messieurs Mullins and Henderson in rapid time. His first win in a Festival event came as recently in 2011 in the National Hunt Chase, four years after his first Grand National win courtesy of Silver Birch.
That he now has 37 winners despite a sabbatical year speaks volumes to his operation. It took Mullins 20 years to achieve that number, nearly twice as long, while there have been victories as diverse as Tiger Roll’s Triumph Hurdle to, er, Tiger Roll’s trio of Cross Country Chases. So let’s dig into the data and find where you can back his winners in 2024.
Elliott’s first Festival win came as recently as 2011, four years after his first Grand National courtesy of Silver Birch
Fences or Hurdles?
There is potentially more firepower at the top of Elliott’s chasers, but overall he gains a greater contribution from his hurdlers. 19 of his 37 Festival winners have come over timber, with 16 over the larger obstacles and two Champion Bumpers to boot.
The severe contrast between where his hurdlers and chasers win makes for interesting reading though. Of his 19 hurdles winners, 12 have come in handicaps, while the only Graded hurdling contests he has won more than once are the Triumph Hurdle and Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle. Both of those he has won twice, but no more.
Conversely, his 16 wins over fences have been contributed towards by just four handicap winners. This leaves 12 which have been won in either Graded or level-weights contests. His hurdlers may always be left with something to work with, but his chasers are aimed high, with a decent level of success.
There are two key themes you can pick up on when looking at Elliott’s most successful races. Firstly, he has tremendous success with out-and-out stayers over fences. His most successful race is the Cross Country Chase, a race won on five occasions by two illustrious stable inmates in Tiger Roll and Delta Work. The former was also one of four winners in the National Hunt Chase for his trainer, the last of which came via Ravenhill in 2020.
Delta Work also appears among his winners which fit the alternate theme of success in handicap hurdles. That type of race makes up his next three most profitable races; four victories have arrived in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, three have come in the Coral Cup, while Delta Work was among his three Pertemps Final winners. Last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle hero Sire Du Berlais was responsible for the other two.
Not only do the marathon staying chases and handicap hurdles perforate throughout Elliott’s roll call of winners, but they also represent all of his five victories at the last two Festivals. The proficiency with which the yard wins handicap hurdles extends far longer though, with Elliott’s team picking up at least one such contest at every Cheltenham Festival since 2016.
With only five races of that kind every year, you can almost always rely on Elliott’s runners to be thereabouts. Overall, if you had backed every one of his handicap hurdlers at the Festival since he had his first winner at the meeting in 2011, you would be up 85.5 points to a level stake. Nowadays, Cullentra entrants make up high percentages of the field in such races, but the reason for this level of profit is because this was not always the case: for instance, Flaxen Flare was Elliott’s only runner in the 2013 Boodles when winning at 25/1.
Narrowing this down further, you would be more than 50 points up in both the Boodles and Coral Cup, narrowly in profit for the Pertemps Final, narrowly in deficit for the Martin Pipe, while the only outlier is the County Hurdle, in which he has run 22 horses since 2011 without success.
If you had backed every one of Elliott’s handicap hurdlers since 2011, you would be up 85.5 points to a level stake.
Between the five championship races, if we include the Ryanair, Gordon Elliott has only been responsible for two winners, one of those coming last year in the Stayers’ Hurdle courtesy of Sire Du Berlais. Despite being one of Ireland’s two modern powerhouses, his horses have rarely cracked it at the very top.
He has had beaten favourites in three of those, with Apple’s Jade (2017 Champion Hurdle), Teahupoo (2023 Stayers’ Hurdle) and Don Cossack (2015 Ryanair) all failing to oblige as market leaders. The second-named was admittedly defeated by a lesser-fancied stablemate, while the latter did come good as Gold Cup favourite a year later.
Nevertheless, there is an absence of success in such contests, while the National Hunt Chase is also the only novice chase his yard has claimed. The Arkle and Brown Advisory remain absent from Elliott’s trophy cabinet.
Things also tend to quieten down as the week goes on. Only five of his 37 winners have come on a Friday, while most of Tuesday is worth forgetting until after the Grade 1s have concluded. From the Boodles to the Triumph Hurdle is where you will find 31 of his winners.
Who to Follow This Year
Day one may not be Elliott’s most profitable, but the National Hunt Chase will be worth looking at for those with an eye on potential winners from the yard. All of his four winners of the race have started at 5/1 or bigger, so the chances of Salvador Ziggy and Three Card Brag may be greater in the contest than they appear. The Cross County is another obvious starting point, with Delta Work chasing a hat-trick in the race, though all of Conflated, Galvin and Coko Beach may also take their chance, the first two of those being former Grade 1 winners.
Otherwise, stick to following the handicap hurdlers across every race bar the County Hurdle. The likes of Pacini and Wodhooh are prominent in the market for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap, as are Staffordshire Knot and Cleatus Poolaw in the Martin Pipe, and Farouk D’alene in the Pertemps Final.
You are likely best staying away from the biggest contests if backing Elliott’s horses, although Sire Du Berlais’ success in last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle may have been a sign of things to come in that race with both Teahupoo and Irish Point well-fancied towards the head of the market.
Week by week, GG are counting down to the 2024 Cheltenham Festival with a statistical look at the most successful trainers in the event’s history. With six weeks left to go, it is the turn of Britain’s number one, Nicky Henderson, so often the foil to Willie Mullins’ greatness in recent times, to go under…
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