In the space of not much more than a decade, Gordon Elliott has gone from a trainer few had heard of to one of the most respected and feared names in the game.
It is just nine years since the Cullentra maestro broke his Cheltenham Festival duck through Chicago Grey in the National Hunt Chase – the first leg of a 2011 double, with Carlito Brigante landing the Coral Cup.
Elliott now has 25 winners at the showpiece meeting to his credit – placing him 10th on the all-time list – and has picked up the top trainer award in two of the last three years, after saddling six winners in 2017 and record-equalling eight 12 months later.
The steep upward trajectory of Elliott’s training career shows no signs of slowing down, and he is looking forward to sending another formidable team of 50-plus horses across the Irish Sea for what promises to be another captivating four days.
Elliott has done his best to dampen expectations, but knows one winner could turn into two and snowball from there.
He said: “We just want to get a winner. Everyone asks what you’d be happy with, but growing up you’d say to have a winner in Cheltenham would be unbelievable.
“I suppose with the way it’s gone, you’d want a couple of winners, so we’ll see.”
Last season’s Festival took a while to catch fire for the Elliott squad before the remarkable Tiger Roll got the team on the board when winning at the meeting for a fourth time late on day two.
The trainer admits going through the first 11 races of the meeting was difficult.
He said: “Last year was tough to begin with, but you’ve just got to keep smiling.
“You’d love a winner on the first day if you could get one. We’d had a lot of horses run well without winning before Tiger Roll won, but that’s the game we’re in.
“In the end we had three winners and were only beaten to the Leading Trainer Award by one. We’re very lucky to be involved with these horses.”
Elliott’s biggest rival, both at home and at Cheltenham, is, of course, Willie Mullins.
In the last nine years, Mullins has been the leading handler at the Festival on six occasions. Two of the three times he did not take the title, Elliott was the man in the spotlight.
Elliott has also given Mullins a good run for his money in the battle to be crowned Ireland’s champion trainer in the last couple of years, and admits eventually claiming the title is his biggest ambition.
He said: “If you asked me if I’d rather win a Grand National, a Gold Cup or be champion trainer there’d only be one answer – I’d be champion trainer.
“It will probably be a few years down the road now, but I’m only 41 and hopefully it will happen one day.”
Despite the intense rivalry, Elliott has nothing but respect for 12-times champion Mullins – and even visited his County Carlow base recently, hoping to pick up a few pointers.
He added: “I was in Willie’s yard a few months ago and had a very enjoyable day.
“The one thing about Irish racing is everyone meets everyone every day. Everyone gets on well, whether it’s the trainers or the journalists, you have to get on really.
“Willie brought the standards higher and sets the level and we’re all chasing him.”
One key component Elliott will have to manage without at Cheltenham is jockey Jack Kennedy.
Events on day two of the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown in early February epitomised the life of a National Hunt rider, with Kennedy producing a brilliant ride aboard Delta Work in the Irish Gold Cup, before suffering a broken leg in the very next race.
It is the latest in a long line of injuries for the young rider, but Elliott has no doubt he will return better than ever.
He said: “It’s unfortunate we haven’t got Jack, but he’s only 20 years of age and all these horses will be here for him when he comes back.
“He’s going to be around for a long time. He’s been unlucky with injuries, but for me, he’s top of the lot.
“He’ll be in Cheltenham with us – he’s part of the team. I think to say you can’t watch the races because you’re injured is a load of rubbish – you’ve got to get stuck in and get involved.”
The aforementioned Delta Work is just one of a whole host of star names from the Elliott yard set to be in action at Prestbury Park.
The leading Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup contender is due to be joined by star novice hurdlers Envoi Allen and Abacadabras and the once-brilliant Samcro, among others – and Elliott admits he still has pinch himself when considering the quality of his string.
“I’m very lucky with the horses I have, the staff I have and the jockeys we have riding for us,” he said.
“It will be seven years in May since we bought this place (Cullentra Stables) as a dairy farm – and it took us a year to get into it, so we’ve been here six years really.
“We’re trying to improve it the whole time. I love going to different yards and seeing how they do things and trying to pick things up.”
Asked for the highlight of his 25 Festival winners to date, Elliott was quick to mention his Gold Cup hero of 2016, Don Cossack.
Despite achieving so much in a relatively short space of time, the trainer still has plenty of targets.
He added: “I suppose Don Cossack would be the highlight, along with Tiger Roll winning last year.
“We’re lucky enough to have plenty of Cheltenham winners trained, but I’d love to win the Champion Hurdle, I’d love to win the Champion Chase, I’d love to win the Ryanair. I’d love to win any race really, but I suppose I’d really love to win a Champion Hurdle.”
Such is the ambition and obvious talent of Elliott, it might only be a matter of time before all the boxes are ticked.