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Thursday 25 May 2017

Elliott won't be drawn on title

Tombstone and Bryan Cooper walking through the stream at Cullentra House Stables in Longwood. Photo: Racing Post
Tombstone and Bryan Cooper walking through the stream at Cullentra House Stables in Longwood. Photo: Racing Post

Day two of the pre-Cheltenham gathering brought the great and the good of racing's media to Gordon Elliott's centre, where there was just one item on the agenda.

In the same way that Willie Mullins the day before had been pressed on trying to catch Elliott at the head of the Irish trainers championship, yesterday it was about asking the current leader about the prospect of ending Mullins' nine-year reign as champion trainer.

"I have absolutely no chance," was the familiar response. "Next Cheltenham question," he said with a grin.

Of course, the English Grand National and Gold Cup-winning trainer would love if the bookmakers, who make him 2/5 to be champion trainer at the end of the Punchestown Festival, were proved right, but his admiration for Mullins is so high that he has no interest in imagining his dream as a reality just yet.

Focus

For now, the focus is Cheltenham and for the next fortnight or so, keeping his 30 or so horses bound for the Festival in once piece. And in some cases making sure he picks the right race to run them in.

The weights for the handicaps will be unveiled today, but that was another topic off the agenda. Phil Smith, the British handicapper, and Elliott-trained horses have attracted a lot of column inches of late, and he wasn't in the mood to worry about how fairly or otherwise his horses will be treated at the Cheltenham Festival.

Tombstone could have an option for reverting to handicap company after a setback delayed his path to novice chasing but at this stage the most likely scenario for him is a tilt at the Champion Hurdle.

"I have never had a runner in the Champion Hurdle so I don't know what it takes to win one, but if you're not in you can't win, and he's not a bad horse," Elliott said.

"Some of the horses will work tomorrow, some of them will go to Leopardstown after racing at the weekend and if all goes well, I would say he'll be supplemented. I'm not saying he's good enough to win a Champion Hurdle but when you see Petit Mouchoir is third or fourth favourite, he was well beaten by Tombstone in the Supreme last year."

There's no doubt that Death Duty will lead the team leaving Longwood in terms of expectation.

His victory in the Grade One Lawlors Hotel Novice Hurdle at Naas back in January was a last sighting of the current Albert Bartlett favourite and he's continued to please Elliott since.

"I'd say he'd have the pace for a Neptune but three miles has him in his comfort zone and he definitely goes for the Albert Bartlett. I think the race is made for him. He's a big three-mile chaser in the making and I've said from flagfall it's the race he'll go for.

"He probably is a better hurdler than Don Cossack was at the same stage on form but he still has to go and do it when he goes chasing."

Another Grade One winner last time out was the juvenile Mega Fortune, who will try and give the trainer a second win in the Triumph Hurdle on Friday fortnight.

"His form is in the book. He is a Grade One winner and so is Philip Hobbs' horse (Defi Du Seuil). I'd say cheekpieces made a big difference for him last time, rather than the ground. You'd think he was a three-mile chaser at home not a horse that is Flat bred."

At the moment, it looks as though it will be Don Poli and Outlander that will form his defence of the prestigious Cheltenham Gold Cup, with the Ryanair-bound Empire Of Dirt likely to slot in as a reserve should anything happen to the aforementioned pair but it is Native River and Djakadam that the trainer is most fearful of.

Suit

"I would think Native River is the pick of the English-trained horses. I really liked the way he went through the line the last day and I think he'll suit the race.

"Djakadam is like Outlander, he goes there a fresh horse and he's been placed in two Gold Cups before. He's a good horse.

"I'm happy with my two. Don Poli has had a couple of goes and couldn't win one but you'd like the look of his last couple of runs and Outlander might just be the horse that is progressing."

Bookmakers Paddy Power make Elliott 11/10 to have at least three winners, a repeat of what he managed there last year, but in typical Elliott restraint, he said: "It's Cheltenham, if I come out of there with one winner I'll be happy. It's great to have a team going there."

That 11/10 might not be a bad price.

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