Icing on the cake for Elliott
Outlander wins Lexus Chase to end year on a high for trainer
A year Gordon Elliott will never forget is only days away from ending but the Gold Cup winning handler was making sure that he was getting some icing on the cake as Outlander secured him the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown yesterday.
Ridden by 17-year-old sensation Jack Kennedy, Outlander was almost rerouted to Tramore on New Year's Day but the decision to let him take his chance in one of Ireland's most prestigious races paid dividends for Elliott and the Gigginstown House team .
Few people would have left Leopardstown yesterday thinking that Outlander has yet got what it takes to beat Thistlecrack but having won this year's Cheltenham Gold Cup with Don Cossack, Elliott, the only man capable of fending off Willie Mullins at the moment, has certainly got another Cheltenham Gold Cup contender in Outlander.
"It didn't surprise me, to be honest, he was only beaten a length and a quarter by Djakadam in the John Durkan and there was only a good jump between them so, no, I wasn't surprised," the County Meath handler said.
For Kennedy it was a 100th career win and one hell of a way to bring up his century and it should prove to be the first of many more centuries and Grade Ones for the Kerry native.
Elliott was full of praise for the winning rider.
"Jack gave him a peach of a ride, dropped him in and followed them around and it worked out great."
The Irish Gold Cup is the obvious next step for Outlander, with connections torn between the Grand National and the Gold Cup with Don Poli, who came back to form to give Elliott a 1-2 in the race.
Winning owner Michael O'Leary was winning the Lexus Chase for a third consecutive year and he was keen to play down his split from Willie Mullins earlier this year.
Both Outlander and Don Poli were two horses that joined Elliott from Mullins but the champion trainer was first to congratulate O'Leary and the Ryanair boss said: "Willie is a gentleman and a great trainer, and it was nothing more than a business decision."
Mullins had taken the first Grade One on the card with Vroum Vroum Mag and over the last three days, sent out an incredible 17 winners, 12 of which were at Leopardstown.
"I would like to think that Willie would have been weaker without me, but clearly not, and hopefully some day in the future he will train for me again," said O'Leary.
Mullins himself had spoken briefly about his start to the season and admitted that losing the patronage of Gigginstown was a "huge blow".
"It doesn't help losing half your yard. Of course it was a huge blow because you hate losing a group of horses like that. But everyone has got to do what they want to do and we just try to keep our team of horses and our team of people happy."
Mullins described the opening three days of the Leopardstown meeting as "extraordinary" and added: "I was hoping Douvan might get over the line but I was just hoping that we wouldn't have a bad meeting.
"We have had a very slow start to the season, even by our standards, but it was just an exceptionally dry autumn and it just happened to be that the weather came right at Christmas when we had a lot of horses to run."
There is little doubt that both Mullins and Elliott are embroiled in a heavyweight battle for the Irish trainers' championship, which continues to prove a fascinating side story to this season.
And despite Mullins' haul in Foxrock this week, Elliott has secured the Paddy Power Chase and had the first two home in the Lexus to show that he's not going to give Mullins a handy retention of his crown.
Mullins himself had a 1-2 in the Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle as Vroum Vroum Mag held off the creditable effort of Galway Hurdle winner Clondaw Warrior and Katie Walsh.
The stable companion Shaneshill was a faller at the final hurdle when coming under pressure but Vroum Vroum returned to winning ways in good style.
Mullins said: "We stayed out of Kempton to run here and it worked out. She did something today that I never saw or do before and she pulled very hard throughout the race, which wouldn't be ideal if we are going to go down the Stayers Hurdle race.
"But I spoke to Ruby and he felt he could get her settled if we needed to and at the moment everything is open to her.
"She works with our Champion Hurdle horses and now we know she stays three miles.
"Shaneshill looks like he is suited from the front as that looked to be the best race he was going to run this season and Clondaw Warrior ran very well so I can take a lot out of that race.
Future plans were still in the air for the seven-year-old.
"She is a very unique mare who can run over any trip, jump hurdles or go over fences and she is the super sub of the Ricci team and that is the way she'll be campaigned this season."
It's shaping up to be some season.