Talking Horses: Cheltenham reception will be acid test for Elliott
As one of the biggest names in jumping officially departed the stage last week, two more returned to action as a National Hunt campaign that officially started in May slowly works its way through the gears. Farewell Altior, one of the outstanding two-milers of recent decades. Hello again, Davy Russell and Gordon Elliott, after many months on the sidelines for very different reasons.
In the last two seasons of his career, much more time was expended on speculation about where Altior would run next, and then forensic analysis of the reasons why he had not, than in watching him in action on the track.
At his best, though, Altior had an irresistible, captivating brilliance and an aura of invincibility built up over the course of four unbeaten seasons over hurdles and fences, setting a jumping world record with 19 consecutive wins, in 2019. At a time when Willie Mullins and Elliott were coming to dominate the Cheltenham Festival, Altior also saw off everything Ireland could throw at him. That challenge now passes to his stable companion, Shishkin, and it is surely for the best horses cannot feel the weight of expectation on their back.
The most enduring memory of Altior is probably his second win in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, which was achieved despite running half a stone or more below his best and drew on his courage as much as his exceptional talent. But he was a special horse from an early stage and sets a very high bar for Shishkin as the new season unfolds towards a potential meeting with Energumene, Ireland’s best two-miler, in the spring.
There is more to the National Hunt calendar than Cheltenham and unlikely though it seemed last October, Russell is looking good for one more season at least. His return to the winner’s enclosure at Navan on Saturday came 342 days after a fall in the Munster National at Limerick that left the veteran jockey with a fractured C6 vertebra in his neck and seemed likely to spell the end of his 23-year career.
Russell, though, had other ideas, and while Richard Johnson followed Barry Geraghty into retirement while the 42-year-old was recovering from his injury, he seems immune to the possibility of doing anything else.
Russell returned to a well-deserved hero’s welcome after winning on an odds-on shot on Saturday and followed up on a 14-1 chance at Listowel on Sunday, his only ride of the day. Both were trained by Elliott, who had made a more low-key return to the track a few days earlier.
Elliott’s reception after a winner at Sligo on Wednesday was warm rather than rapturous, but he will have been more than content simply to be back on a racecourse after a six-month ban that could – and arguably should – have been longer.
Few will need any reminding about the reason for Elliott’s ban or the damage inflicted on racing’s image in Britain, Ireland and around the world when a photograph emerged of him astride a dead horse on his gallops, posing for the camera with a smile and a victory V sign.
In addition to his six-month ban and a €15,000 fine, Elliott lost several of his best horses to rival trainers after the picture was published. He has undoubtedly paid a price for his mindless stupidity. He also parted company with Simon Munir and Isaac Souede in July after a BBC Panorama investigation broadcast footage of the owners’ Vyta Du Roc being slaughtered in a Midlands abattoir.
Elliott said at the time the horse had been transferred to the home of a rider with the permission of the owners but the trainer was still the last licensed individual to have responsibility for Vyta Du Roc.
Whether even now he fully appreciates the scale of the damage he inflicted, however, is hard to say. The only interview before his return to action, in the Racing Post, included as much reflection about the possible motives behind the release of the photograph as expressions of regret for its existence in the first place.
“As much as it is so competitive here in Ireland,” he said, “we all have each other’s backs and I guess through things like that you find out a bit more about who your real friends are.
“Others had their own agendas, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I was disappointed with some people. I shouldn’t have done what I did – I will never shy away from that – but I’m a human being who made a mistake.”
The picture was an insult to the hard work and dedication of thousands of stable staff who treat their horses with the devotion and respect they deserve and a grievous blow to the sport that propelled Elliott to fame and fortune.
The damage will endure even as Elliott rebuilds his career and will remain a ghost at the banquet when he saddles a big winner for a long while to come. The warmth, or otherwise, of the reception after his next winner at Cheltenham remains to be seen.