Timeform's Nic Doggett previews Cheltenham and Aintree and expects more winners for new Betfair racing ambassador Gordon Elliott.
"While some may have been overwhelmed by winning the Grand National aged just 29 in his first season as a trainer, Elliott - who currently leads the Irish trainer standings for both winners and prize money - appears to have blossomed in the increasing glare of the spotlight."
The big National Hunt news of the past month has been the relocation of the various Gigginstown Stud-owned horses from Willie Mullins. Clearly it takes a confident man to remove horses from the eleven-time Irish champion trainer, however anyone who has eaten a €5 garlic and cheese flatbread on a Ryanair flight will be well aware that Michael O'Leary, owner of both Ryanair and Gigginstown, is certainly brave. More so if he also eats said item.
While the official explanation of increased training fees has been undermined by suggestions of a clash of personalities, it's important to remember the increasingly influential safety net of moving such a large number of quality horses: Gordon Elliott.
While some may have been overwhelmed by winning the Grand National aged just 29 in his first season as a trainer, Elliott - who currently leads the Irish trainer standings for both winners and prize money - appears to have blossomed in the increasing glare of the spotlight. Following Elliott's Aintree breakthrough, Jessies Dream quickly provided him with a first Grade 1 success, winning the Drinmore in 2010, and the County Meath trainer's upward trajectory reached its zenith (to date) with Don Cossack's imperious win in the most recent Cheltenham Gold Cup.
As the latest Chasers & Hurdlers annual explains, Elliott's Gigginstown duties do not just lie with the talented jumpers near the top of the pecking order:
"Don Cossack's trainer Gordon Elliott, whose Cullentra House Stables was runner-up to the dominant Mullins operation in Ireland in the latest season, has an unusual sideline for the Gigginstown operation in that he shares with Pat Doyle the job of introducing some of the owners' young horses to racing in point-to-points before they are sent into training under Rules (those who start life in points with Elliott routinely go on to other yards)."
A figure of 'around 20 horses' have moved from Closutton to Longwood - including Don Poli, Apple's Jade, and Blow By Blow - further strengthening a yard that is firmly on the up. Not only is Elliott on the up, but his horses are also in excellent form at present. At the time of writing, a staggering eight of Elliott's last 14 runners have won and, though not in that particular batch of winners, Munster National victor Tiger Roll heads to Cheltenham on Friday.
While most jumpers were on their summer holidays, Tiger Roll was in the process of winning his first two starts over fences. He had five outings in between winning at Kilbeggan in July and Limerick last month, running creditably on all but one occasion, however he took his form to a new level with that Limerick success and looks a horse to follow over staying trips this term.
Cheltenham's card on Friday kicks off three days of jumps racing that will whet the appetite for National Hunt fans and which concludes at Aintree on Sunday, where the Old Roan Chase features a horse with the dreaded Timeform squiggle - §. The official line for Third Intention is 'not straightforward/often flatters to deceive (hard to win with)' though he may have been described using more base vernacular more than once in his 44-race career. However, he is in good company; other famous chasers to have held a § at some point include the Cheltenham Festival-winning quartet of Our Vic, Albertas Run, Tidal Bay, and Kingscliff.
To Third Intention's credit, he has won seven races and is set to top the ratings for Sunday's contest. Bookmakers beware: five of his wins have come in fields of seven or less runners. God's Own has traditionally peaked at the big spring festivals, so whilst being the best he might not be at his best, and a bigger threat could be Irish Cavalier who looked as if he would benefit from the run when well held at Chepstow on his reappearance. Paul Nicholls won the race last year with Sound Investment and has Vibrato Valtat entered 12 months on, while JLT fourth Three Musketeers looks the type to improve this season.
However, the horse that takes us full circle is the Gigginstown-owned Devils Bride. One of the Mullins dispersal, Devils Bride wasn't disgraced on his first start for Henry de Bromhead at Gowran Park last time and this traditionally strong-travelling horse should benefit from a strong Smad Place/Royal Regatta-forced pace.
Having won over £3m in prize money last season in Ireland alone, it's unlikely that Mullins will be too perturbed by the changes that have taken place over the past month. However, for the first time in years, there is a legitimate challenger to his Irish champion trainer crown, and it is also likely that there will be plenty of times when victories for Gigginstown horses will leave a bitter taste in his mouth. However, as a result, for the racing fan at least, a more competitive and exciting season awaits.