For Gordon Elliott, it must have simply been a relief to be back at the Cheltenham Festival, doing what he loves. The last 12 months have not been easy for the Irishman. When photos circulated early in 2021 depicting Elliott straddling a dead horse at his stables, he became a figure of castigation in the horse racing community, and was deservedly issued with a one-year ban from racing, six months of which were suspended.
That meant he was forced to miss the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, and as a result most of his prized horses were sent off to other trainers. You can imagine Elliott’s disappointment, and it’s clear that he has learned a valuable lesson.
His return to Cheltenham this year felt like something of a redemption story for Elliott. He perhaps didn’t boast as many favourites as in 2020 when he notched five winners, but there were several who were heading to Prestbury Park in good form and who were somewhat fancied in the Betdaq horse racing betting.
By the end of the four days, Elliott had just two winners to his name, a fair reflection perhaps of his loss of reputation and stature over the last year or so. A number of his horses didn’t produce the performances expected of them, and while two Cheltenham winners is nothing to be sniffed at, it’s fair to say that it doesn’t reflect the aspirations Elliott holds for his career.
Let’s focus on the two winners first, the first of which was Commander Of Fleet in the Handicap Hurdle on day two of the Festival. Of all his entries for Cheltenham, it’s probably fair to say that Elliott didn’t expect too much from the eight-year-old, and at odds of 50/1 in the horse racing betting, it was clear that no one really fancied Commander Of Fleet. However, thanks in part to a fine performance by Shane Fitzgerald in the saddle, the long shot got the better of the rest of the field to seal an unlikely win.
Later that day came one of the most dramatic moments of the entire Festival, and certainly the moment Elliott will be most proud of when he looks back at the meeting. Tiger Roll’s last outing had been widely talked about in the build-up to Cheltenham, with the Cross Country Chase representing his swansong before being retired. For Elliott, Delta Work was also in the field, another well-fancied horse who had the potential to deny Tiger Roll a fairy-tale ending.
Indeed, the sodden conditions meant that many were beginning to write Tiger Roll off, as he is a horse who has rarely performed at his best in anything other than good going. But those who doubted him did not reckon against his ability to step up when it matters most.
Both Tiger Roll and Delta Work set the pace for much of the race, and by the time the finish-line came into sight, it was just the two of them neck-and-neck for the prize. Delta Work ultimately had just too much for theTiger, but there was a lovely moment afterwards as the two horses were walked side-by-side back to the parade ring. You could have forgiven Elliott for having a tear in his eye.
That race was certainly a highlight for the Irishman, but elsewhere there was disappointment as none of his charges really did themselves justice. Perhaps the most disappointing of these was Galvin, who was widely tipped as the horse who could upset the apple cart in the Gold Cup and snatch victory away from his more fancied opponents.
However, the eight-year-old just never really got going, and although he finished in fourth place, he was some 17 lengths behind eventual winner A Plus Tard.
In many ways, Galvin’s performance in the Gold Cup symbolised the setback Elliott has endured as a result of his ban. Throughout the Festival, it felt like the gap between himself and top trainer Willie Mullins had never been wider, and with the latter securing a record-breaking 10 winners across the four days, it’s clear that Elliott has a lot of catching up to do.