Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

This season's race for the Champion Trainers' title could be the closest yet, and Tony looks at the reasons behind a potential end-of-season thriller.

  • Wednesday 28 October
  • Blog
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Questions about the “ifs and whens” of becoming Champion Trainer interest Gordon Elliott as much as queries about where Envoi Allen runs at Cheltenham, but the perennial runner-up was both blunt and honest in his appraisal of where he wants to be at the end of the 2020/21 National Hunt season in a recent Horse Racing Ireland event.

‘If you don’t want to be Champion Trainer, why else would you do it? If your ambition is to train 20 or 30 winners a season, and there’s another trainer whose ambition is to be Champion Trainer, I know who I’d like to have my horse with.’

That’s a comment that speaks of a certain privilege, albeit self-made privilege in Elliott’s case, and perhaps won’t sit well with many; in the current climate, keeping the doors open might be a worthwhile ambition for many yards, while there were just nine trainers who had more than 20 winners in Ireland last season.

Still, it says a lot about how driven the man is, and there are a few factors at play this season that may finally get him to the top of the training mountain, not that he needs much of a push after being beaten less than €200,000 in prize-money four years ago, and just over €100,000 last year.
Last year of course concluded on March 24th at Clonmel without Fairyhouse and Punchestown taking place, and perhaps the latter cancellation will work in Elliott’s favour this season.


Punchestown has never been particularly kind to him, while typically being a Mullins beano; between 2015 and 2019, Mullins had 66 winners to Elliott’s 18 at the meeting, the latter’s win strike-rate at the meeting 7.9% when it was 15.8% during the full seasons.

The difference was even more accentuated in the open Grade 1 races, the most valuable at the meeting, with Mullins winning 15 such contests in that five-year period, and Elliott just two with Don Cossack and Apple’s Jade in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

There is a strong sense that Elliott’s horses go off the boil by late-April, but with titles on the line it is not is as is he can choose to opt out, though those decisions may have come at a long-term cost, if not in the following campaign then in the years to come.

I do think Elliott was working to counter that a little last year – the likes of Envoi Allen and Abacadabras had lighter seasons than comparable horses he trained previously – but it is hard to keep things at peak when the yard has been going hard since the autumn, the Down Royal meeting this weekend an early focal point.

Not having those extra runs may work in the favour of Elliott’s horses this season, and conversely against Mullins as his runners would often peak at Punchestown. But, in 2020 they didn’t get the opportunity to reach that level and were left off for the year early and might take more time to get to back to their bests, Mullins an habitual slow-starter as autumn turns to winter.

There is also an amended programme to consider. There was no Irish Grand National last season and plans to run it at the Fairyhouse Winter Festival were shelved in favour of adding prize-money to the Troytown and Porterstown - those races up to €125,000 each, having been worth €100,000 and €50,000 respectively last year.

That means the Porterstown is essentially an Irish Grand National-lite and HRI’s race planners have also made sure the races are not run in consecutive weeks as would previously have been the case, the Troytown now on November 8th.

The planners have also introduced a number of Graded second-season novice races on a once-off basis to replace the lost novice events from March and April just gone. Beacon Edge won the first of these at Galway on Sunday and there are others to come before Christmas.

Perhaps there will be further amendments to the programme in early 2021, but this stacking of valuable races in November and December suits Elliott more than most, though it does need pointing out the concerns about prize-money dwindling into next year were allayed by HRI securing increased funding from the Irish government in the recent budget.

This comes at a time when Irish-trained runners in the UK are still restricted to higher class races, and while the type of horse Elliott would take there might typically struggle at home, they do at least give him more volume for competing at the lower grades here.


Respective ownership profiles in the Mullins and Elliott yards might also be significant. Mullins suffered a blow – albeit a glancing one – over the summer when Jared Sullivan moved his horses to Paul Nicholls, and while there may not have been any stars among that cohort. There were a number of decent contributors of prize-money, Sullivan having 15 individual runners for the yard last year including Real Steel, Stormy Ireland and Cut The Mustard.

Those concerns were nothing, however, compared to the ones Elliott faced when Gigginstown announced they were withdrawing from the sport, but initial worries this might be crushing for Cullentra were quickly allayed.

Rather than putting Elliott's yard back five years, it has spurred them on with other high-powered and big-spending owners coming on board, perhaps feeling their horses would now not be planned around the maroon and white. Thus, Elliott now seems to find himself in a sweet spot between the Gigginstown talent pool still being deep and newer backers adding support.

Though the season remains its infancy, only three of Elliott’s top ten earners in 2020/21 are Gigginstown-owned, whereas last season half of his top 20 belonged to Michael O’Leary.
Cheveley Park, Robcour and the Morans are all relatively new additions to the yard, the last-named particularly interesting as they went from zero to the hundred thousands very quickly. Noel and Valerie Moran started out with some moderate sorts just a few years ago and are now spending big, purchases like Grand Roi (£400,000) and Queens Brook (£160,000) among those bought publicly, while something like Zanahiyr cost plenty privately.

Point-to-point horses have been the mainstay of Elliott’s recent acquisitions and I was fascinated to read elsewhere on the site that half of Eogháin Ward’s list of ex-Irish Pointers to follow had finished up with Elliott. Some of their hefty price-tags have been well-covered by Kevin Blake in his weekly article.

Ward, of the website, points out that Elliott is in the unusual position of having a number of owners who can buy at the top end of the market, whereas many other leading trainers might only have one or two.

He added that Elliott has been buying more and more ex-pointers over the last five years; in the 2014/15 season, he won 30 races with ex-Irish pointers, and that figure had jumped to 65 last season despite it ending early. In the same period, Mullins went the opposite way with 50 ex-point winners in 2014/15 and 35 last season.

Of course, pointers are not the only show in town, and Mullins will typically do well with ex-French horses while it also takes time for these young horses to come to fruition; of the top 20 horses judged on prize-money last season, four were novice hurdlers, one was a novice chaser while the rest where older horses.

But enough of them should pay off in enough time to make an impact, and whether it is this season remains to be seen. Willie Mullins has operated an amazingly high level of efficiency since racing returned – 34% win strike-rate so far in 2020/21 – and that is especially so in the valuable races, but he might be facing his biggest challenge yet now.

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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